I’ve Only Been Here 18 Days!

GIrlsWater

Girls carrying water from school to my home. The girl in the black skirt is my host family’s daughter. Her school uniform sweater is the cushion on top of her head.

This time, I want to give a different slant on what Peace Corps volunteers in South Africa, and perhaps elsewhere, are doing.  I have heard from so many friends that I am brave but I have never believed it.  I am “something else” but it isn’t brave.

George, a third year PCV, killed a small snake in his house, with a brick.  That is brave! I would just scream and try to find someone else to come deal with it, like I did when the bat came flying into my house.  I have a lot of scritching bats in the roof space between the plastic that I see and the tiles on the actual roof.  The noise is almost constant, scurrying, scritching, fluttering, and I don’t like it much.  I wear earplugs at night just to mute the sound a bit.  When one of them did fly into my house, at dusk, probably attracted by my light, I freaked out (right after I put on my Crocs) and ran across the yard to get Thulile, my host mom.  She came immediately, grabbed my brand-new still-wrapped mop and hit the bat with it.  Then she wrapped it in TP and took it outside for release.  That’s brave!

No bats have entered the house since then!

Peace Corps staff tell us that we will have cycles of ups and downs emotionally.  They even have a graph (Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment) that they have made to show us when that might occur in our 27 month service period.  Right now, at 3 to 6 months, is a vulnerable period.  We have been dispersed in various areas of KwaZulu Natal province, are now living alone in our new site, and trying to get adjusted to that plus a new community and school situation.  Although some of our group live in a “cluster”  (near other volunteers), many of us are quite far from our closest PCV.  We might even be very far from a person we came to know and like during training but now can’t see very often at all.  There is a great deal of “alone time.”

We were also told by our Country Director, Julie Burns, that as Americans we are so caught up in constantly doing meaningful work and being busy.  As PCVs, part of our work is to just be here.  She quoted Thoreau, sitting all morning watching the wildlife.  It is hard to do.  I want to “work” and be “useful.”

I read a lot (I can download books from the Redwood City Library), I wash my clothes and dishes, I sweep gecko shit and dust out of my house quite often, I walk, I watch the kids play, I wave to children and adults. I am learning to just be here.

I am not in a cluster.  I am about 34 km north of Jozini (there is one volunteer about 5 km outside Jozini) and about 28 km from Ingwavuma (about 8 volunteers).  Seeing someone from PC means one or two taxi rides, planning, shopping while you’re there, schlepping groceries home on the taxi.  Yes, it is worth it but not something done on a whim.

For a few basic supplies, I have a “tuck” shop a five minute walk from my house.  A tuck shop is a small store where you can get bread, milk, soda, potatoes, rice, candy, etc. but no specialty items or fresh produce or baked goods or even potato chips.  About 6 km away (a 10 rand taxi ride — $1) from me is Bhambanana, which is a T crossroads, right to Manguzi (more volunteers) and left to Ingwavuma.  There is a gas station with a bright clean convenience store and an ATM, there is a China shop (everyone uses this term, and it is Chinese owned) with loads of cheap crap, a non-chain grocery store with basic supplies, a hardware store, and a few sketchy looking establishments I haven’t explored.  Outside there are two taxi ranks, for travel near and far, a police station outpost open occasionally.  My principal took me for a visit to meet the taxi owners and the police, introducing the new person in the community for my safety and their awareness.  Outside also, are market stalls where friendly women are selling packages of tomatoes, potatoes, apples, oranges, huge green cabbages, corn on the cob.  The food is mostly packaged in sizes way too big for me and my tiny refrigerator.  However, I did buy two small papayas that were delicious.  I also explained (in isiZulu!) to the curious women that I was a PC volunteer and would be teaching English at Okhayeni Primary School.  They were happy that I was speaking their language and would be at the local school.

Right now, it is the week of term break, no school, between 3rd and 4th terms.  The South African school year starts in mid-January and ends in mid-December.  I have been at my school for two weeks, have met lots of new people, and barely know anyone.  There is a dip on the graph on the vulnerability side for this time because of this exact situation.  The PC has given us a small booklet called “Phase 2” (training was first) with our tasks for the period after training and before our assigned teaching position starts in January.  This week we are supposed to walk around, interview adults and children (with my limited isiZulu? Are you nuts?), get to know our shopping town.  I am less than thrilled!

I love being part of the community at Okhayeni Primary School.  I went to a meeting of the School Governing Board (like site council), was introduced to 13 new people, and told them a little about myself.  I asked and was given permission to identify the school on my blog and show photos.  They wanted to know if it might help them get some funding and I told them about the funds already donated by my friends and how PC has to be involved.  I told them they had to come up with a well-defined project that would benefit the children at the school.  They were very welcoming.  Their two questions to me were: How old are you? Do you go to church?  They were astonished at the 68 and one person said he would invite me to his church. They are also astonished at my walking ability.

SchoolStaff

Head of Department (far left), teacher, Principal Mrs. Ndlovu (in green), teacher, dressed for Heritage Month in traditional Zulu attire.

Teachers and kids are very friendly to me at school.  These last two weeks have been off of the regular schedule, however.  Teachers have been giving the required standardized tests, marking the papers, moderating (checking for errors in marking), analyzing (totaling the results), and then doing report cards.  When the children are not doing testing, they are often without a classroom teacher, either in the room or outside on the yard, playing.  (Imagine that in America!). However, it gave me an opportunity to teach in Grade 6 and 7 English.  I started on the curriculum for 4th term, following the Dept. of Education CAPS guidelines for Grade 7.  With Grade 6, I told them about me, answered their great questions, read stories.  You should have heard their universal gasp when I told them how old I was!

ToptenlearnersGrade3

Top ten learners in Grade 3 holding their certificates for excellent work

Grade5

All of the Grade 5 learners passed their English exam. Their teacher made cake, muffins and bought soda to reward them for doing so well. This is one table group smiling for the camera, before the prayer of thanks, and the signal to begin eating and drinking.

So, here I am, on term break.  I feel like I live two lives. First is my life in South Africa, in my little house, trying to “integrate.”  Second, is my life “online”.  I text (Whatsapp) with other volunteers.  I text and email with people from the USA, England and Tanzania.  Sue Hepworth (my loyal and true English author friend) calls me about once a week.  Ian calls occasionally.  This keeps me connected.  My phone stopped working last week–I could not call, text, or get email!  I freaked out and realized I could not be here without connectivity.  Fortunately, it was an easy fix done by our office clerk and I was back online again and back in South Africa rather than using that free one-way ticket home!

Sue H. says I am brave because I was willing to leave my close friends and family.  See how close I was to giving all this up!

P.S.  Just as I was going to forward this to Caitlin, the internet on my phone disappeared! My host dad arrived, said he and wife #3 were going on a day trip past Jozini and offered me a ride.  I checked with Vodacom; my phone is fine; their service is subject to times of “no service.”  Then I shopped (my favorite thing to do–not).  I bought a Zulu wife’s “pinafore” (think house dress with ruffles and trim) and a thing that goes under the door (does not fit on mine of course) to stop dust and geckos from easily entering.  I attached it with duct tape!  So glad I brought it all the way from America.  I was very happy to arrive home in my peaceful countryside, away from the noise, garbage, exhaust fumes, and traffic of the town.  And, I taught six children to crochet this afternoon!

schoollibrary

Part of the small school library I am organizing

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2 thoughts on “I’ve Only Been Here 18 Days!

  1. Dear Karen, Sending lots of love from all of us, your family here in Oakland. I can only imagine how lonely it must be. And to think that previous PC volunteers were without access to email, texting, phones, etc. in the past. It must draw on all your strengths and I know you have many.
    The women look very friendly and lovely in their Zulu outfits.

    Longer email coming. Hang in there and think of all the stories you will be telling when you return.

  2. It may not be bravery (at least in your mind), but can we go with a spirit of grace, justice and beauty? I can! As a friend, and a taxpayer, thank you, Karen, for your work.
    “When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.”
    ― Paul Hawken

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