Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Have I enjoyed my time in South Africa?

Living as a white American in a rural South African village is unusual, and not unexpectedly, my presence within a black community where, sadly, white people refuse to live, often raises curious conversations. I can’t tell you how many times I’m approached by someone asking who I am, where I’m from, and what am I doing here. These initial questions are always followed with one more, “How do I find South Africa?” As in, How do I like it?

Well, answers regarding my life and work in South Africa are variable and dependent upon my mood; however, I’ve learned that a pat answer of “I find South Africa very nice” satisfies everyone all the way around: I’m spared of having to devolve in a complicated discussion of how I find South Africa (South Africa is a very complicated country!) and, well, basically I’m telling them what they want to hear: that I find their country as wonderful as they do.

Now that I’m approaching the end of my Peace Corps service, this question has been revised, when it is asked of me, and one that I initially found very startling: Have I ENJOYED my time in South Africa?

I was first asked this a few weeks ago when I was in Pretoria for a medical concern, and a doctor, new to me, asked this. I was dumbfounded with the question and kind of stammered a vague reply, but it seems to have permanently replaced the original version of the question, so I’d better get used to it.

In thinking about how stunning this question felt I’ve realized my concern. Now, this will sound terribly negative, and perhaps it is, but I don’t mean it so: I would never, ever use the word “enjoy” to describe my time in South Africa.

Ok, ok… Let me unpack this a bit… I haven’t enjoyed my time in South Africa in much the same way I didn’t enjoy going to graduate school: I’ve found the experience difficult and challenging.

Am I not glad for having had gone to graduate school? Of course I’m glad I attended graduate school: It was a life changing experience and I learned a lot. Were there not moments and times when I enjoyed graduate school? Of course there were moments and times when I enjoyed graduate school! Would I do it again? Well, here it gets a bit complicated, because knowing what I know now (hindsight is always 20/20), I’m not sure I would have attended graduate school (or at least the same program I finished) and knowing what I know now, I’m not sure I would join Peace Corps again, or at least join Peace Corps South Africa.

(However, newly-invited Peace Corps volunteers have very little to say about where they will serve. Well, you can make a general request: for example, I said, “I’d like to serve in Africa—anywhere on the continent of Africa. Potential Peace Corps Volunteers who adopt the attitude of, “I would like to go where I am most needed” are the volunteers PC most wants to deal with.)

Now, being someone who believes everything happens for a reason, I don’t spend a lot of time wondering “what if” and “if only” and trust that my life is playing out exactly as it is for all of the right reasons and trust that I was “meant” to join Peace Corps at 46 years old and I was “meant” to serve in South Africa.

And I have certainly had moments and times when I've enjoyed myself very much living and working in South Africa:
• I’ve enjoyed every single church service I’ve attended in South Africa. Usually, I can’t understand a word of the service, but I am deeply moved by the spiritual devotion of the people I live with and have found nothing more beautiful than my community dancing, singing, and praying together in church.

• I have enjoyed, very much, working with the children of South Africa. I feel hopeful about the future of South Africa when I see the excitement and delight in the eyes of her children.

• As bizarre as this sounds, I’ve enjoyed being invited to my community’s funerals: To be invited to my community’s funerals makes me feel more loved and accepted and “a part of” than any other gesture offered to me. My community is very kind to invite me into such intimate gatherings. I feel special at being a part of these solemn (yet, at the same time, very festive) occasions.

• I have enjoyed working with my primary school. This professional relationship was rocky in the beginning but I feel we have grown to love and care for each other very much.

• I have enjoyed my relationships with my neighbors on the college campus: I’ve grown very fond of these people and love them very much. They are very good to me.

• I enjoyed working with a college student, Israel, in learning Setswana. He’s a very bright and dear boy, and he too, gives me hope in regards to South Africa’s future.

• I enjoyed very much attending both the primary school’s and the college’s “special events”: Heritage Day celebrations, end-of-school year celebrations, the college’s Academic Opening, etc.

• I enjoyed teaching both a Grade Six class at my primary school and an ENG Level 3 course at the college.

• I enjoyed my vacations in South Africa: I traveled north to see Africa’s majestic baobab trees (Adansonia digitata) and Northern Kruger (Kruger National Park) and I enjoyed traveling south to South Africa’s Cape Town to volunteer for Table Mountain National Park.

• I’ve enjoyed developing friendships with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers.

• I enjoyed living with my host family for my first 8 weeks in Africa.

• I’ve enjoyed gardening and growing food in South Africa.

• I’ve enjoyed spending time with the very old women in my community.

So, YES, I’ve enjoyed moments and times in my two years of living in South Africa.

And yes, I have certainly learned a lot in my time in South Africa:

• I’ve learned a great deal about South Africa’s history, its literature, its music, and its “rainbow nation” of multi-culturalism; I certainly know much more about South Africa than I did before arriving.

• I have learned a tiny, tiny bit of Setswana—enough to please people in my community very much in greeting them.

• I’ve learned how important it is to me to have collaborative professional relationships.

• I’ve learned how important it is to me to feel safe and protected from the threat of physical harm, that threat being from other people or conditions in my environment.

• I’ve learned that South African women, 80 years old or older, are tanks: they dig all day with handmade tools in soil with the consistency of concrete; they carry 5 gallons of water on their heads; they raise at least two families in their lives--their own and their grandchildren; they harvest their own firewood in the African “bush” and cook all their meals over a cook fire (and have been all their lives); that South African “gogos” are wonderful cooks; and that a South African gogo can be my most powerful ally and strongest protector!

• I’ve learned how wonderful it is to walk freely and unafraid after dark.

• I’ve learned that South African youth hold very strong and powerful political influence. (The police force in my community is afraid of the college students.)

• I’ve learned how WONDERFUL it is to have reliable water, electricity, a clothes washer, central heat and air, working plumbing with a flushed toilet and hot and cold water inside the house, and not needing to sleep under a mosquito net!

• I’ve learned how wonderful my friends and family are in their on-going support of my African adventure.

• I’ve learned that complete strangers can become dear friends via Facebook, email, and snail-mail.

• I’ve learned a great deal about South African flora, fauna, and birds.

• I’ve learned that yes, very dangerous snakes do live in my area and they can be found if you look for them.

• I’ve learned that the South African sky is one of the most beautiful in the world.

• I’ve learned how to build a thorn fence (to protect my garden.)

• I’ve learned how to ride the public taxis.

• And sadly, I’ve learned that there are many people, all over the world, who hate Americans simply for being Americans, and some of these are former-Americans themselves (ex-pats).

• I’ve learned that a little village dog can trot her way into my life and provide an affection and companionship I hadn’t realized I was craving.

I’ve learned very many more things in my two years in South Africa; however, I think the most important thing I’ve learned in my time in South Africa, is how much of an American patriot I am. This was a surprising revelation to me, as I’m certainly one to criticize my country and especially its politics. I could barely get out of bed when Bush defeated Kerry in 2004. I had no idea how much I loved my country or how lucky and blessed I feel to have simply been born in the USA. I had no idea how lucky I was to have infrastructure in place to keep me safe and protected: how we have safety codes to protect us from faulty electrical wiring in our buildings and our sewage safely disposed of and away from us; how lucky we are to have regular garbage pick-up and recycling; how lucky we are not to be locked—or have our children locked, with padlocks, inside of buildings that have no fire safety systems such as sprinklers; how lucky we are to have safe public transportation; how lucky we are that our children can attend good schools at no cost and are taught to think critically; how lucky we are to have heated, comfortable safe homes; how lucky we are to live in a democracy not tainted with corruption and the hatred resulting from the recent revolution; how lucky we are to have a safe and varied food supply that provides enjoyment and promotes health; how lucky we are that our children aren’t playing by breaking glass bottles in the streets; how lucky we are that our homes are homes, and not fortresses surrounded by razor wire or elaborate security systems; and how lucky we are that we don’t have armed guards with assault rifles guarding our ATMs.

Of course, these are broad generalizations and of course, we DO, in America, have problems with the exact issues listed above. And we are moving toward living in fortresses, with the trend of the “gated community” and for all I know, we do now have guards armed with assault rifles guarding our ATMs… But, for the most part, I feel very grateful to have such a safe country to return home to and to live in. I have realized how much I truly love my country and that I will likely never again leave it.

And lastly, I’ve learned that although Peace Corps hopes we, as volunteers, aspire to noble deeds, perhaps the noblest of deed is simply that we live with the people in our communities, that we love their children, that we pray with them, that we bury their dead with them, that we ride their dangerous taxis with them, and that we eat their rotten produce with them.  Perhaps our willingness to live with the people in our communities and to try to be kind and loving is the noblest of deeds we can aspire to.  I hope it has, for my community, mattered a little.

Has serving Peace Corps and living in South Africa changed my life? Of course it has! I left my Louisville home in 2009 at 46 years old, teaching college writing mostly but also developing interests in sustainable agriculture and living “off the grid.” I left Louisville considering a career switch from teaching to working in parks or perhaps moving into environmental education. I left two sons, the love of my life, my church, and my dear, dear family and friends. I left people who have loved me my whole life. I left my beloved city, I left my beloved State, and I left my beloved country.

I will be returning to my country in September of this year, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, at 48 years old, to my sons, my family, my friends and my community. I may or may not teach college writing on my return; I may or may not even live in Louisville on my return. My life will be brand new and wide open—a clean slate, so to speak. How much of a life change is that?? The feeling of this brand new life awaiting me is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

So, have I enjoyed my time in South Africa? I have enjoyed times and moments of my life in South Africa. My life in South Africa has taught me a lot, perhaps mostly it has taught me a lot about myself and how much I love my country Has joining Peace Corps and living in South Africa changed my life?: Most certainly, it has, and more of that will soon be revealed.

Would I do it again? Knowing what I know now, would I join Peace Corps at 46 years old and live and work in South Africa? This is, of course, the “what if” question that I cannot answer at the moment—or perhaps will ever be able to. Maybe in several years, after I see where my life goes and can better tell how the effects of serving South Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer has had on my life, I will be able to say, with a resounding yes, that, certainly, I would do it all over again. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat! We’ll just have to wait and see.


PS. I couldn’t think of what kind of photos to post with this blog. I hope you enjoy seeing more shots of amazing South African children receiving toy bears from the Mother Bear Project.


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  2. I love the post- am inspired by the risk you took. Reflecting on my life and wondering whats next for me.

    Love the pictures. they are beautiful people!