Friday, May 20, 2011

An anniversary of a different kind…

Notice lights glowing in the distance--these are from homes in Pudimoe

I’m celebrating and acknowledging my Peace Corps swear-in date, which is the 17th of each month, on Facebook. As my time for returning home draws nearer, I’m becoming more and more excited—especially on the 17th of each month and am having fun counting down the days!

However, I’m quietly celebrating another anniversary of a different kind. In May of 2010, I relocated my Peace Corps South Africa living situation from a very busy, boisterous “dorm room” setting, to a much more private residence on campus in a permanent “caravan home” at my college. (In the States, we call these “trailers,” or at least we used to call them this.) So, I’m celebrating a year in my little trailer here at the college and have been very, very happy living in it.

It was difficult for me to ask to move out of the “hostile hostel,” which I jokingly, but somewhat truthfully, began calling it. For one thing, when compared with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, having my own private “flat,” with a separate kitchen and bath space, even if inside a girls’ dormitory, was considered a “Posh Corps” living assignment, and many of my friends expressed jealousy. For Pete’s sake, I had indoor plumbing, a bathtub, and a flushed toilet! (Many, many of my fellow volunteers live in homes without indoor plumbing and haul water for drinking and household use from a community tap.) For another, there was a lot I liked about living in the dormitory, especially my large glass windows that provided an “IMAX” viewing experience while watching the drama of the African sky. And when things felt threatening outside, be it a weather-related storm or a soccer-related storm (I could overlook the campus soccer field from my room), I felt snug and secure inside my second-floor castle room in a cinder-block building.

After eight months of desperately trying to find happiness in my dorm room existence, I did ask to move. I was living with, well, college-aged kids who were joyful, boisterous, and loud during restful hours. Also, since I was a captured audience, I had frequent visitors and it was difficult to hide if I need to rest or be alone. But there were other things about it, that were much more unpleasant. For example, the building itself was infested with rats and African-sized cockroaches and about 200 girls and I were pad-locked into the building each evening with no possible escape in the case of an emergency (and no sprinkler system in case of a fire). While I was living there, a sewage pipe burst and raw sewage bubbled up out of the ground underneath my bathroom window for months. Also, the building lost water and electricity regularly.

However, even with these undesirable living conditions, there was something else much more intolerable to me: Strange men would visit the dormitory on weekend nights and the solicit college-aged girls. I found this to be the least tolerable circumstance of my living situation and eventually asked to move. (Yes, yes, I did make my campus supervisors aware of this unacceptable issue but unfortunately, nothing was done. There are cultural differences between American and South African attitudes regarding sexual relations between “older men” and “young girls.” Although I find the practice unacceptable, unfortunately and sadly, it is accepted here.)

When I made my supervisor aware of my wish to make other living arrangements, she encouraged me to “start looking around” for other possibilities. I was assigned two schools, as we all are, and in addition to the college, was working for a primary school out in the village. I began seeking a place to live off-campus, as I preferred to live in the village anyway.

Before I decided to move I was in the habit of strolling around the campus and had found a row of caravan homes—trailers—that I learned were occupied by educators at the college. There was one abandoned trailer and I began to long for it. It hadn’t been inhabited for quite some time, so I wasn’t even sure if it were habitable. I found myself visiting a picnic table on campus and sitting dreamily, eyeing the vacant trailer and praying for the possibility of living there.

Long story shorter: I did find someplace else to live in the village, but hadn’t realized the problem of the college “losing face” if I left it. In rural South African culture, to be embarrassed or seen to “lose” something is highly, highly undesirable—and for the college, to “lose” their Peace Corps volunteer to a village home would have been embarrassing.

I approached the college about moving into the vacant trailer.

Now, keep in mind, no one had lived in the trailer for quite some time. I knew there was a reason it was uninhabited and figured it must be in pretty bad shape. At this point however, I would have rather lived in a pitched tent in the back lot of the college than in the dorm room, so I asked to see it. As imagined, it was in pretty bad shape: the stairs providing entry way to the trailer weren’t there, the toilet didn’t flush, the cold-only water trickled out of the faucets, the hot water heater needed replacing, and there were hot wires coming out of most of the electrical outlets. Furthermore, while I had water and electricity provided by the college in the dorm room, I would need to purchase my own electricity for the trailer.

I didn’t mind any of these things—I’LL TAKE IT!

My change in residence needed to be approved by Peace Corps, especially in regards to my safety and security. With my Peace Corps supervisor’s help, we negotiated repairs and made arrangements to have security bars put in place.

My new home was becoming a reality!

Well, in the end, there was quite a bit of unhappiness involved with my move. I would later learn that, even though the trailer had sat vacant for quite some time, my South African colleagues—fellow educators—raised quite a stink at my “getting” to move into the trailer when they were without campus housing. They viewed my moving as an example of “white privilege.” So AFTER Peace Corps had installed security doors and AFTER I had moved myself in (I hired college kids to help me move—none of my peers were interesting in helping); AFTER I had scrubbed as much of the filth and grime away as I could, I get a visit from the campus manager to explain that everyone at the college was upset at my preferential treatment and no, they wouldn’t be repairing the hot wires, the toilet, the stairs, or the hot water heater after all.

I was FURIOUS. :-)

In the end, I got to stay, and, well, the live wires were repaired, the stairs somewhat replaced, and the college bought me a “mini-geyser,” which is basically a device you drop into your bath water to heat it. Many, many rural South Africans heat their bath water with pots on the stove, pots over a wood-fire, or with electric kettles.

I was also warned too, by a sympathetic South African, that the trailer sitting unprotected from the African sky “would be an icebox in the winter, and an oven in the summer.” And she was absolutely right about this! It does become an easy-bake oven in the summer and now that winter is coming, has turned into an icebox.

However, even with the dramatic extremes in temperature, even with the disgruntled college educators, even with faulty wiring and a toilet that doesn’t flush, I’m much happier here and have been—for a whole year. I have privacy, I have a “yard,” I can garden, I can line-dry my clothes, I can “hide” if I need privacy or space, I have space to accommodate overnight guests, I have an oven, and yes, I have indoor-plumbing and a bathtub! I have been much, much happier here in my little African home and am grateful to have had it.

As my time in South Africa draws to a close, I’m rearranging my little trailer home one last time: I’m moving my “living area” back to my bedroom, which is on the east-facing end of the house, so I have good, direct sunshine (and heat!!) all of the day. Also, I have a door that I can shut to keep in the heat from an electric heater that I eventually broke down and bought last winter (after foolishly trying to “tough it out” most of the winter!)

I’m finding in the mornings now, I’m waking warm with my heater on, and dress into warm clothes, and then exit into the kitchen of my trailer—which is ice cold. I warm water immediately to wash and prepare my coffee. For my coffee, I must warm my cup and milk or, because my dishes are so cold, my coffee ends up being tepid. I return to my warm bedroom, which now has become my “living room,” to prepare for my workday. With my heater and my rearranged living space, I’m warm enough now that I go off to school feeling warm and my mornings feel bearable, rather than last year when I felt my hands and feet nothing but blocks of ice all winter.

In my rearranging my house for my last winter in Africa, I’m also making a mental note of who I’ll be leaving my Peace-Corps-purchased belongings to. (While Peace Corps provides us funds to set up our households, they also ask that when we leave and return to our homes in the States, that these same household furnishings be distributed to needy members of our communities.) I will be finding a home for my bed, my wardrobe (these were actually provided by the South African Department of Education), my linens, my fan, my dishes and all kitchen pots and utensils, my electric kettle, and yes, my heater. I’ve met some wonderful people here in my time in Africa, and have “earmarked” my friends for these things along the way.

Since my group is in the School and Resource Project classification in South Africa, most of us finish our teaching and work with schools at the end of June. By wrapping up our professional work assignments, and after an extended school break in July, this leaves us a month or so to say our goodbyes to our communities.

My Peace Corps service is quickly coming to an end. Although I’ve been away from home and not seen my family members, I’m already hearing my loved ones say, “It doesn’t seem like it has been two years.” (Meaning, for them, time has gone quickly.) For me, it has definitely felt like two years and has felt like a VERY LONG TIME.

So, I’m counting the days and gearing up for my last winter in South Africa knowing this one, with my heater, will be much more comfortable. I have loved living in my little trailer home and am sure I’ll feel sad to leave it.

Soon, Karen

PS. Although my dorm room provided an “IMAX” view, my trailer allowed “amphitheater seating”—and these pictures are of “my” South African sky.


1 comment:

  1. Yeah, make sure the department approves to whom you give your furniture. I experienced an ugly misunderstanding