Peace Corps has three general goals for its Volunteers: 1) to help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers, 2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and 3) to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
In an effort to encourage the third goal, Peace Corps is holding a blog competition for current PCVs: there’s a public vote online and the winners receive a trip home to give a presentation about their blog and country at the Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. I almost submitted mine to be considered before I realised that leaving my country just to give a presentation on it did not particularly excite me, nor did the idea of combing through my posts to make sure they were “Peace Corps worthy” – the topics real but not too edgy, the highs of my experience vastly outshining the lows, etc. This blog is for you and me, now and 20 years down the road, and I’m glad I decided not to compromise its true purpose in an attempt to become a bureaucratic poster child. That choice gives me credence to write about what I want to today; something that Peace Corps probably prefers I didn’t, but something ridiculously real to most PCVs’ services: harassment.
The lovely act of harassment may play a minor or major role in one’s service and it’s affected by a seemingly endless slew of reasons: the history of the country, the current state of the country, the time of day, the state/upbringing/desires of the harasser, the PCV’s race, sex, orientation, age, beliefs, clothes, possessions, etc., etc., etc. I’d be shocked if a Volunteer avoided harassment their entire service and there are fairly common sense ways to lessen the intensity and frequency of occurrences. I speak only for myself and my service as a young, white, female Volunteer serving in a semi-freshly post-Apartheid nation and living in a rural village outside a rather oppressed and decrepit shopping town. I receive basically zero harassment in my village; the town is where it reigns trendy. My techniques to avoid or quickly exit encounters include: only being in town during sunlit hours, wearing loose-fitting, unattractive clothing, walking with posture and purpose, donning an extreme ‘bitch face,’ keeping my fists balled (not to fight; fists are more difficult to hold onto than fingers), and, perhaps the most difficult, keeping my cool and balancing my responses so they are level-headed but very firm. The last thing I want is to let them get a rise out of me, causing more heads to turn and labeling me entertaining, though sometimes all I want to do is knee the drunkard in his boys so hard that they pop out of his toothless mouth. The main thing I try to remember is that I am, in basic terms, representing females, white people, the United States (though, naturally, most assume I’m English or Afrikaans), and, most importantly: I’m paving the way and leaving impressions that the next PCVs who come here must step into. Though one time, recently, I seemed to have forgotten all of that when a fellow PCV friend and I lost our cool a bit.
Due to a taxi association strike, we were waiting at our town’s KFC (other than taverns, the only place open after 18:00) for my friend’s principal to fetch us from town. It wasn’t late, maybe 18:30, and although being in town after sunset is completely unsavoury, it was a necessary evil this time. We were sitting and chatting, sporadically turning away the odd person asking for money by explaining that we’re volunteers, when we saw a man come inside strictly to pay us a visit. Completely blacked out, he stumbled towards us mumbling incoherently, probably about money or food or marriage, and, after realising that talking him down wasn’t going to work, we silently moved to stand next to people in line. He followed and, due to the amount of whatever he had consumed, sort of lurched into us, weaving into our faces. The combination of our residual anxiety of being in town after dark, the man’s proximity assaulting our senses, and the dullness in his eyes contrasted with the brightness in the eyes of the motionless onlookers was such a vivid depiction of this country’s internalised oppression that we simply snapped under ‘fight or flight.’ We yelled Zulu phrases we’d come to learn, I may have shoved him (I can’t quite remember), and then we yelled at the people in line for not helping us – something that’s arguably worse than the harassment itself. Because we’re used to people not intervening, it was a joy to see our KFC acquaintance Mavis come out from the kitchen to shoo the man out of the store. Please read carefully because I feel like I’ve made some of you quite nervous: we were never remotely in danger (the man was in no condition to even lift a finger) but just outrageously frustrated. It wasn’t even that bad or abnormal of an experience, but my friend and I cracked (we later decided that breaking once during two years isn’t a bad track record).
In all honesty, y’all, I don’t blame that guy, or really any of the men that harass me. It is absolutely bloody annoying to deal with, but I don’t blame them. They were raised in an extremely male-dominated society in which women are complacently objectified, they are perhaps addicted to drink due to historical Apartheid methods that have potentially become hereditary, and, let’s be honest, I look like a fun, young, rich play toy. My frustrations don’t lie within the question of why they do what they do, but rather within the query of when it will change. Coming from a vastly developed and progressive-thinking nation, it’s difficult to live in a society that doesn’t subscribe to, or has yet to even be exposed to, some of the same egalitarian beliefs. I don’t ever regret my decision to join Peace Corps or live in South Africa, but I think it’s acceptable to still have, voice, and wrestle with frustrations that accompany my choice. It’s sometimes beneficial to lift up the rug and openly discuss what’s been swept under time and time again.
This upcoming weekend brings the awesome crèche and community development day I spoke of in my last post so know that my next update will be a bit shinier and “Peace Corps worthy.”
(Feel free to vote in the blog competition here; there’s one from South Africa!)