Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fourteen months at my permanent site and still trying…

The photos posted are of the sweet-thorn acacia in bloom. I love the bloom of this tree: it looks like a little, yellow fuzz ball and smells very sweet. The blooms are the size of marbles and don’t last very long. I love the scent of this tree in bloom and it reminds me of honeysuckle. Bees, beetles, ants and birds love it! And so do I! This may be the last time I see it, so I’m careful to walk to the trees in bloom each day and enjoy them.

After fourteen months in my rural South African community, I’m still struggling with trying to find my place and feel comfortable and “fit in” with this alien nation on the other side of the world. I often comment to friends, “I feel more like I’m on Mars than in South Africa.” Some will argue that because I’m so different from those in my community (they’re black, South African, are recovering from the effects of apartheid, and speak Setswana; and I’m white, American, am used to the comforts of living in a first world nation, and speak English), that I will never fit in and feel comfortable.

It’s a complicated mix of my trying to find meaningful work, my feeling painfully homesick, my struggling with learning the language (but admittedly, have given up), my trying to forge meaningful and supportive relationship with my community members, and my trying to feel safe.

It’s a complicated mix, but I keep trying.

Why do I keep trying? Well, I massively rearranged my life to come to South Africa, took professional and personal risks (leaving my work and my family), and overcame significant obstacles to join Peace Corps (the application process is extensive—and expensive--and the medical evaluations border on the ridiculous). I feel I was prayerful about my decision to join and was in discernment about it for several years. And lastly, and perhaps most significantly, I swore an oath that serve with Peace Corps for 27 months. I take vows and oaths a bit seriously, and keeping my word and my promises are important to me. (The oath reads, in part: … I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps for the benefit of the people of South Africa, so help me God.”) Also, I have a very strong, blue-collar, Protestant work ethic and I like to finish what I set out to do and finish well. (In other words, I’m very stubborn!)

So, my service and my commitment are important to me and I keep trying.

Also, while I tried to not have expectations about my Peace Corps service, I’m afraid I had one very dominant expectation over all the others: I thought I would like it. I knew living in a different part of the world with people from a different culture would be difficult and challenging, but I thought I would like it. And because I thought I would like my Peace Corps service, I keep thinking I must be doing something wrong to keep me from liking it, and in my stubborn-headedness, keep trying to find ways to like my Peace Corps service.

One day this week I dragged myself to my primary school because it’s important to me to keep trying. I hate going, because now that I’m not teaching (I’ve moved into project work), there is really nothing for me to do, and I’m always at risk of being told, “Go to Grade 4 and make them be quiet,” which I hate. Everyone seems perfectly happy to have me sit in the teacher’s lounge all day and do nothing, everyone except me. But I feel it’s important that I keep trying. On my way to school that morning, I had to cross the main road that is under construction, so I had to deal with a massive road crew who delighted in their early morning taunting of me. I tried not to give them any reaction for obvious reasons, but on this morning, perhaps because it was so difficult for me to rally myself to keep trying, rage bubbled up and I gave them all the most hateful “stare full of daggers” that I could muster. My reaction, of course, filled them with glee and the taunting intensified.

A woman that attends my church, who is normally kind and gracious to me, was standing at the water tap drawing water and delighted in the men taunting me. She physically rolled with laughter and began slapping her knees. She was having a grand old time at the spectacle of my suffering. Her delight in my taunting broke my heart in a million more ways.

While I was trying to maintain, or regain at this point, my composure, I thought to myself, “These people hate me. I keep trying, but it is not working. Why am I here?”

I enter my primary school having endured this early morning distress. Granted, I’m probably not in the best frame of mind at this point, but can’t help thinking, “What kind of fresh hell awaits me here?”

My principal sees me began his usual banter of “Hello Miss Karen Kaye, are you here to visit again, or will you actually help us today?” I’m irritated at his sarcasm and do my equally sarcastic return, but in the submissive way he requires, “Mr. K, you know I’m here to serve you in how you best see fit.”

It seems I’m to “help” my school for the day by stapling the exam papers for the students’ testing next week. He brings me sets of photocopied pages I’m to arrange them in order and staple them. There is nothing complicated about the task, and is something a clerk or assistant would have been assigned in the States, before the invention of the fancier copiers that manage this task all inside the machine. I felt undaunted by the task. Most volunteers bristle with this kind of task, because, well, because we should be doing more important things, but I generally don’t mind. I seem able to do these kinds of tasks quickly and efficiently, and my doing the tasks instead of a teacher means the teacher is in the classroom with the children instead of stapling or typing papers.

My first batch is a twenty page paper, all numbered pages facing front to back. My principal spends twenty minutes explaining how to order the pages (I’m not kidding) and how to staple: the staple must enter the pages just so and at just the right angle. I thank Mr. K and somewhat sarcastically comment that “I think I can handle this, thank you.”

He spends another twenty minutes watching me staple, taking care to correct me if the staple is a bit off angle or the staple is buckled in some way: the stapling has to be perfect.

At this point, I’m roiling, and I comment a bit more sarcastically than I should have, “Yes, Mr. K., I’m sure that stapling these pages in this fashion is the most important way I can help your school today and I’ll be careful, I promise.”

He leaves me and I find myself praying: “God, grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I pray the prayer a thousand times, but it is not bringing relief.

The stapler I’m given is substandard and the staples keep buckling. I remove ten buckled staples from one packet of pages and nearly start crying: “God, grant me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Mr. K returns to check my work and seems satisfied that I’m handling the task at hand but tries to reassure me that “I shouldn’t work too hard and stress myself out.” He doesn’t want to “make me run away.”

He leaves me again, and I lay my head on the table and pray, “God, give me strength and courage to continue. PLEASE give me courage and strength to continue.”

I guess the saddest irony in this spectacle is that the school has purchased a brand-new copy machine that could certainly assemble the pages and staple them, and even more “perfectly” than I’m able to master. Sadly, Mr. K rules over the copier, won’t allow anyone near it, and certainly isn’t keen on my helping him understand the complexities of the machine.

Now, I’m not one to toot my own horn. I’m most happy knowing that I’m just “another Bozo on the bus” and no better nor worse than any of my fellow human beings. I try to approach these kinds of instances as lessons in humility. However, I do have a graduate-level degree; I have taught college classes at respected universities in the States; I have special training for teaching reading to young children; I’ve designed and implemented curriculum; I’m a published and award-winning writer; my volunteer work with parks and national areas has taken me to places like Alaska; I’ve had several commentaries to air on my city’s NPR affiliate; I’m a member and contributor to several professional organizations; I’ve participated and coordinated numerous professional committees and workshops, and my professional training, even in Peace Corps, is ongoing. I’ve demonstrated leadership qualities in all of my professional career and come to each new venture highly recommended. People in the States consider me a team-player and always enjoying working with me.

However, on that day in South Africa, I’m an unwelcome white woman making my way, fearfully to a school that doesn’t quite know what to do with me, and in their attempt to find a way to know what to do with me, have made me feel angry and humiliated. I can’t help but wonder how this experience demonstrates Peace Corps two other goals?

• To help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served

• To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people

Is my life and work here in Africa helpful? Or harmful? And for whom?




I wrote this piece earlier in the week and was reluctant to post it because it seems so negative and I couldn’t think of anything redeeming to say. Well, in waiting to post, I’ve realized an even greater reason that inspires me to keep trying.

I keep trying because, like Mandela, I believe the hope of South Africa lies in the children of South Africa. I believe the people of the adult generation alive in South Africa today are too close to the horrors and wounds of apartheid: there simply hasn’t been a passage of time to heal the bitterness and resentment that still poisons attempts at healing race relations in South Africa. I mean, if you think about it, look how long the US has had to heal race relations and we still struggle with it. I believe that the generation alive today, and perhaps several more, will struggle with racism, and hate, and crime, and fear. But even so, I think it’s good that I’m here. I think it’s good that I keep trying. I think it’s important for the children of my primary school to see and experience a white woman who genuinely loves and cares about them, because I do, genuinely love and care about them. And that’s why I especially keep trying with this primary school, even though every single day I want to walk away from it (because I can’t stand this one South African adult). It’s important for me to be here, and it’s important for me to keep trying, because the children are watching, and I don’t want to let them down.

(Sadly, I think it may be too soon for my presence and willingness to be kind and loving to the college-age kids in South Africa. Even at this young age, the kids at my college seemed poisoned by the hate of racism. They seem hell-bent on challenging everything and everyone in South Africa: from their educators, their parents, their college, their community, and their government. They seem hell-bent on striking (and burning and destroying things) and making ridiculous demands and being disrespectful and destructive. They’ve certainly made it clear to me that they don’t value the presence of a white, American woman in their midst. I’ve not quite given up on them, but almost; it feels easier to focus on the younger children.)

Also, I’ve noticed, that I tend to let the challenges of South African life wear me down, and I become rigid and inflexible. This morning, for more a spiritual practice than anything, I decided that on my walk through the village to the post office, that I would be kind and loving to everyone I met first and count the ways that people were kind and loving back. I’ve learned, but have forgotten, that if I focus on the problem, the problem gets bigger, yet if I focus on the solution, the solution gets bigger. I was hoping this exercise would help make the solution bigger. I counted no less than 20 occasions of people being loving and kind to me. As I neared my home and my exercise almost completed, I noticed a truck approaching with a crew of workers on the back. My stomach clinched in fear as I braced for the taunting, but called up the biggest smile and wave that I could muster and felt victorious when the road workers smiled and waved in return. Ah, redemption at last!

So, for today, I keep trying.


  1. I'm convinced that the changes in your perspective are the most important things you will get from this experience. Unfortunately, pain is a sign of growth when it comes to the psyche and I have a feeling yours will be forever changed by this experience. It's impossible to get these lessons any other way and I commend you for accepting the challenge and allowing the changes in your life. You will be a more valuable presence here and you will make other people change their perspectives or at least open some of their limitations based on your life there and the challenges you've faced. If you understood and could learn to accept the painful things that are happening, you'd probably find a way to make them uneffective. It's almost over and you have a great vacation coming up. You are amazing and I'm so proud of you.

  2. I admire your courage and determination to continue. You represent our country. Hang in there.

  3. Karen, Thank you for opening your vulnerable side to us and to the people of SA. As a future preschool teacher, I totally agree that the children are the best place to focus in this situation. And your wonderful, brave smile had wonderful results! I remember that when i worked at UPS everyone seemed to comment on how angry I looked. I thought I had a bland, "my thoughts are far away" look on my face. Perhaps your courageous smile carried other body language with it that encouraged smiles rather than taunts?
    Reading your posts also shows me what a slug I'm being in the relatively friendly position of preparing for my semester of student teaching. When i finish "goofing off" at your site, I'll refocus on my school work with your tenacity in mind. You GO, girl! Oh! Table Mtn for christmas sounds exciting! Best wishes for a happy and memorable time there! -Susan R

  4. PS
    Sweet thorn acacia is beautiful! I can see it is similar to the Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) here, tho the flowers look more like thistle flowers in the photo.Are they like thistle's flowers in reality? Wish I could catch a whiff of the scent. Hope you'll enjoy it for me! SR