the unmentionables worth mentioning

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I’ve officially been in my village one year.  I arrived sometime in the single digits of September 2012 and simply cannot internalize that, for one full jaunt around the Sun, I’ve been lighting candles, toting water, cooking from a gas tank, and pretending I didn’t see the spider that just skittered behind my pillow.  Last year, as my principal (only later would she become the “Ma’am” we know and love) drove me to my new home, I remember feeling so apprehensive.  For the first time I fully felt what I had done to myself: committed my time and efforts to people I hadn’t met, in an atmosphere I didn’t know, for two whole years – for free.  My mind was a broken record of expletives.  Now, a year later, it’s humorous to look back at the nervous woman I was in that car lurching up the bumpy alley.  Why, just a log of today’s events include reuniting a lost baby goat with its mother, a water fight with learners, and consequential shivering by my family’s stove as Mama made me bundle up and eat an orange.

Sometimes, when I’m nervous or afraid of something new, I wish I could flash forward to when that scary something has become mastered and/or enjoyable.  Somewhat begrudgingly, I’ll admit that would defeat the purpose of the process, though.  If, a year ago, I knew what greatness would reveal itself on a normal village day, I would forever be waiting on it instead of doing (or enduring) the things necessary to coax and sculpt that greatness into being.  Today’s blog is simply to highlight some recent positivity of which I’ve been fortunate to be a part.

Let’s scoot back to May for the first one: the annual district culture competition.  Rightfully so, this reigns supreme in all things Zulu because it’s an event solely to showcase traditional pride, dress, and dance.  The learners, and – let’s be honest – the Screen shot 2013-09-07 at 2.56.06 PMeducators, like it because for weeks leading up to the competition school days are cut short so that the learners can practice.  My little school hosted the event this year so afternoons also held practices on meticulous cleaning.  Finally, the day arrived…and so did seemingly every Zulu in KZN.  Participants from 18 schools flooded our modest grounds and thus began a very long day in which I could not have stuck out more.  In contrast to the newcomers, it was pretty fun to notice how comfortable my learners were around me, dragging me around and essentially showing me off.  I’m a fiercely intimidating mascot, let me tell you.

Different age groups of sexes competed in gospel, amahubo, wedding dance, ngoma, and isicathamiya.  (If I’ve just lost you, read: things intriguing to witness but that you could never adequately replicate.)  My most lucid memory of the day was standing in a grade 6 classroom before some of our girls competed.  I was in a sea of naked learners, frantically tying garbled traditional beads onto their heads, necks, upper arms, waists, and calves.  I remember stopping and just cracking up because, at that point in my life, nothing was amiss; everything about my situation was normal.  It was truly awesome…one of those pure joy moments.

A room full of endorphines & teddy bears :)

A room full of endorphines & teddy bears 🙂

A small sample of the adorable joy I was able to witness that day.

A small sample of the adorable joy I was able to witness that day.

The next experience I’d like to share takes us to late July.  I was finally able to participate in something I’d wanted to do since learning of it during PST the previous July: the Mother Bear Project.  It’s an amazing initiative based in the States but felt around the world: volunteer knitters make gorgeous, one-of-a-kind teddy bears to give to children affected by HIV/AIDS.  (Note: “affected” can mean many things: afflicted by, orphaned by, left teacher-less or friend-less by, etc.)  Currently, Mother Bear is focusing on children in the grade R-4 range, so this meant I got to pair with my village’s lower primary school.  I knew some of those learners as neighbours or from walking on weekdays, but it was really rewarding to do something meaningful from within the school grounds. I placed my Mother Bear order back in February, asked the school’s principal to choose 180 (90 boys, 90 girls) of their most vulnerable learners, and received the bears in late June.  The woman who started and runs this non-profit asks for nothing, not even shipping costs, except a photo of each child and their bear to forward to the knitter to keep their spirits inspired and their yarn a-spinning.

On the day I gave them out, the school staff gathered the learners in a separate room and translated for me as I told them they’d be receiving a new friend made by someone from around the world that loves them.  It was incredibly heart-warming to watch their expressions and body language go from tense apprehension to shy smiles to huge beams and audible excitement.  In this culture, it’s rare for a child to stick out his or her hand and receive not the stick, but a soft free toy made with love.  I happily snapped photos of each learner with their new friend as well as some videos of the whole group singing and playing (I can’t upload them on here but if you’d like to see a video, please comment or email me).  This experience, less than an hour, was definitely one of the most rewarding of my service thus far.

The last glimpse into my life I’ll bombard you with today is simply this past weekend.  There are some weekends at site where, in all honesty, I just hole up in my hut making bottomless coffee and re-watching movies because they’re familiar and resonate a different time in my life.  Then there are weekends at site where I look around at my location, my company, and my activities and (in slight awe that what’s happening is really happening) I think, “Damn, I’m Peace Corps today.”  Those moments always re-focus and help convince me to take advantage of every moment of my service (instead of, say, making bottomless coffee and re-watching movies) because I really am there for an amazingly short time.

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Screen shot 2013-09-07 at 1.44.28 PMMy small bucolic village had to be the inspiration for Lion King and it backs up to a mountain where, about a 20 minute walk from my house, there’s a large cave.  Last Thursday some learners asked that I visit it with them on Saturday but, inspired by a Wacky Wednesday I introduced at school, we had to wear “crazy clothes.”  And that’s exactly what we did… picture a troupe of the most random components scrambling around on a mountainside: me as Jane-Fonda-meets-Princess-Leia, my older brother as a jumpsuit-clad Michelin man, several girls dressed as boys or gogos, and barefoot toddlers running to keep up.  I’d done the walk around the mountain a few times but it’s always so fun to explore the numerous crevices (where – no shame – I use cow skulls to pretend I’m discovering the first humans), the caves and little passages, and the teeny trickle of a waterfall.  Every time I do the trek it’s with a different group vibe and Saturday’s entourage took the cake on spirited singing, playing innovative village games, and pattern-clashing attire.  Suck it, Under Armour.

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A water-droplet-preview of what Sunday had in store for me...

A water-droplet-preview of what Sunday had in store for me…

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Sunday was a new one for me.  The 1st of September is regarded as Spring Day here, which means…water fights.  Obviously.  I knew if any kids came to my hut, I should leave all electrical devices inside.  Eventually in the afternoon, some neighbouring learners dragged me out and, lo and behold, they were hiding buckets around the corner – the horror!  To their delight, I shrieked in surprise and was promptly showered.  Then it was game on.  We all went to the other side of the village and had a pretty epic battle around a community tap…teaming up together, singling out a teammate together, learning that you’re the one being singled out, yelling at learners that if they douse you, they’ll fail grade 6…you know, usual water fight politics.

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And there I was again, in that golden nugget of a Peace Corps moment – being jostled around by underwear-clad children and just belly laughing because this is my life; this is normal.

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