Reflections from KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

Turns out, you take yourself with you wherever you go.  For those of you who know me well, the following list will not be surprising.  For the newer or less close friends and readers, you might need to rethink who you think I am.

I am


I am also

Hopeful (sometimes)

I keep thinking: Am I really the right personality to thrive in the Peace Corps, with “thrive” being the operative word?   Sure, I can muddle through being sad and lonely a lot of the time and missing the golden opportunity to “connect” with the Zulus.  I can be easily discouraged by my attempts to reach out and make friends, rather than “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  I can also work hard at teaching the learners and put less weight on “finding a friend.”  I can “embrace” my solitude.  Or, all of the above.  Or not.

Turns out, wanting deeply and insecurely to be included by others is not a great way to start making friends.  I always wonder if I have some sign radiating out from my being that only I can’t see. It says “I want you to like me.  I want you to like me so much you will invite me to hang out (go for coffee, come to your house for dinner, go to a movie, go to the beach) with you and we will have such a great time together that we will do it often.”  It repels rather than attracts.  It is too much, too needy.  Most people here (everywhere) have on-going lives, with jobs, husbands/wives, children, church activities, extended families, housework.  They are not fully available for new friendships even if time, culture, and curiosity allowed it.  They are, however, very friendly.

I can remember back in 1992 when I moved to Redwood City from Berkeley.  I was very lonely, knowing only Pam and Mike.  I would drive back to Berkeley many weekends to visit friends.  I also was a brand new teacher and often worked 6-7 days/week, 11 hours/day, just to get prepared.  And because I had no social life.  As time went on, I made a few wonderful friends, got married, and my community grew.  I am now at home there (well, not right now, but prior to July 2014).  And yet, I left for a while (a LONG while) to join the Peace Corps.

Did I think about all my combined personality traits when contemplating this adventure into another country, another culture, another language, far away from my family and friends?  Yes, I did. But it is one thing to do it while you are sitting comfortably in your California home, and another thing when you are living it on a daily basis in rural Kwa Zulu Natal.  I remember Ian saying, oh, the two years will just zip by.  Only in hind-sight my child and wise man.  Each day seems very long, not hard, but long. With 20 months to go, September 2016 seems very far away.

Six people have left my cohort.  We started out as 35 in Philadelphia, ready to fly the big airplane.  Now we are 29 in SA30.  Whenever I hear about someone leaving (medical or early termination), it hurts, even if I completely understand why they leave and I was not particularly close with them.  It is such a personal decision and apparently not unusual for a significant number of PC volunteers to leave at this point in their service.   I thought we would all stay together until the end of our commitment.

Why am I writing like this, more intimately personal?  Partly, because each time I add a new blog post, I get fabulous comments from some of you that talk about a person I don’t recognize as me.  Sue H. says my “grit is awe-inspiring.” Toni says I am an “incredible creature.” Eileen admires my patience with the difficulties and “willingness to adapt to some of them.” Carolyn says I am a “trooper.”  Others say I am brave and they could never do what I am doing.  Get the picture?!?

I often think of myself as a big whiny baby (a 69 year old baby?) moaning and groaning about being old and lonely and not being able to sit in a coffee shop, drink coffee, and enjoy free wi-fi.  To put things in perspective, last Monday morning I heard about: 9 people of one family who died in a lightning strike, the son of a teacher who was in a car crash and hospitalized, and our Grade 1 teacher being taken in an ambulance to a hospital and kept for 5 days while they tried to figure out what caused her pain, and an Oregon nephew who had emergency abdominal surgery.  And I am moping about what?!?!

I am not brave.  I totally freaked out when a 3 inch toad fell from the ceiling onto my head while I was reading.  I totally freaked out at the bat situation.  I cried buckets during a unusually severe wind storm.

Turns out, you can’t be someone you are not.  So, here I am in the Peace Corps.  They accepted my application, they decided I should go to South Africa and teach English in a rural primary school plus live in the manner of the local population, and I said “Yes.”  I wanted to do this, not even really knowing how hard it would be or how frustrating the bureaucracy rules would be.  It IS hard for an old, white, single, highly-educated, Jewish, secular-humanist, female reader to fit in in rural KZN!!!!!!  In reality, I am probably doing pretty damn well, given that set of differences.

So far, I have no intention of leaving the Peace Corps before my 2+ years is up.  I am sick of the bugs flying around and dive-bombing me in the evenings while I am reading, the big spider way up high on the wall, peeing in a bucket, volunteer friends leaving, waiting “forever” in a taxi until it it is full before it can go, and not having a coffee shop anywhere nearby with scones and free wifi.  Oh well, if it was easy here, I wouldn’t be here, right?  Well, some  traits on my personality list are keeping me here.  Let’s just hope I am doing some good along with the whining!

Update on my cute rondaval: I made it cuter.  While I was at the Victoria and Alfred Wharf in Cape Town, I spent a lot of money on stencils, oil paint, and brushes.  I have painted little trees on my house (to combat ugliness)!


I love seeing my new African trees painted on the front of my rondaval. I can’t decide if I should stop at minimal and understated or add more.

Update on the garden: I have harvested three skinny, not very red radishes.  I gave a teeny bite to my host mom and she was surprised at the tang/heat. No one has radishes here.  That may be all I have. Some bug (perhaps the 2 inch long grasshopper) is sneaking in and eating my baby bean plants and lettuce sprouts. The sunflowers have tiny buds in the centers!


Here are three scrawny radishes. Only one made it into a salad.

9 thoughts on “Reflections from KwaZulu Natal, South Africa

  1. Dear Karen
    I repeat – your grit is awe-inspiring!
    I love this post and I love your stencils.
    Sending love and more courage.
    To all Karen’s friends –
    A phone call makes such a difference to someone who has no close friends living nearby. Please ring her. I ring her on Skype, from my laptop to her mobile phone (cellphone). I taught myself to use Skype so you can too. Just remember the time difference between your home and South Africa. E.g. If you are in California and you ring her at 10 a.m. it will be 7 p.m. her time.
    Go for it!

  2. Was resilient one of your words? Should be. Also resolute. And intrepid. Fell the warmth of a thousand hugs flying toward you! I love your blogs and the intimacy with which you share your life.

  3. Just watched “Posh Corps” documentary on YouTube. Karen, the segment about the KwaZulu Natal volunteer showed how much hope she gave to the children, how she helped break down historical racial barriers just by being there. So maybe it’s not only your teaching that’s making a large impact there. Maybe just the fact that you showed up, are trying, you care, are what matters most. Plus your stencils are really fun and pretty. Love you.

  4. Karen:
    I still remain amazed at your emotional and physical endurance, but am also wondering if the PC ever considers the possibility of shifting volunteers to situations that would use their time and skills in less stressful social circumstances. Are other volunteers working in areas where they have PC colleagues to share the work and emotional load? I know you would be greatly disappointed to give up entirely, and I suspect you won’t go that route, but what could be done to ease the situation you are in? Perhaps nothing, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on that idea. In the meantime, I think of how you are managing as well as you are and have great respect for that.


  5. Dear Karen, You are so brave to share all of your thoughts about yourself, good and maybe negative. I learned something when I first moved to Menlo Park–Palo Alto and started my own business with State Farm. I had to be sooooo patient and wait for those referrals. Asking incessantly for them produced nothing. But if I was helpful, cheerful, and gracious as I could be, then slowly people accepted me in this new role and began to not only buy insurance from me, but referred their friends. There you are teaching these children and helping out as much as you can. I believe the villagers see that, and as you stand by them they will begin to stand by you and start weaving you into their lives. You are probably on the edge of the upswing. Just as you feel you are getting nowhere, you really are almost about to see things change, I’m guessing. Hang in there baby, as they say. We are all rooting for you and some of us are even praying for you too. Keep up the good work with painting your house, planting a garden, bearing with the wild life around you (yuk a toad on the head and a creepy spider overhead). You really are an inspiration to all your book friends who couldn’t possibly have the courage to do what you are doing. Hugs to the kids and double hugs to you. Tempe

  6. Your thoughtful, reflective, honest and brave side coming to the fore in this message.  And the truth in “you take yourself with you wherever you go.”  You are brave in sending this message out to all.  I would think you have the time now to be reflective of yourself in this new situation.  I so appreciate your honesty in willing to show your innermost self. It allows all of us, your friends and family, to be reflective of ourselves as well.  Thanks, Karen, my friend.  Love, Jacquelyn From: South Africa Peace To: Sent: Saturday, February 28, 2015 7:45 PM Subject: [New post] Reflections from KwaZulu Natal, South Africa #yiv2216368713 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv2216368713 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv2216368713 a.yiv2216368713primaryactionlink:link, #yiv2216368713 a.yiv2216368713primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv2216368713 a.yiv2216368713primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv2216368713 a.yiv2216368713primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv2216368713 | karenhfine posted: “Turns out, you take yourself with you wherever you go.  For those of you who know me well, the following list will not be surprising.  For the newer or less close friends and readers, you might need to rethink who you think I am.I amCynicalJudgm” | |

  7. Hi Karen,
    I don’t agree that you’re rigid, or you wouldn’t have been willing to try such a challenging and different new adventure as the Peace Corps. I would also add courageous for dealing with the challenges of learning a new language at 68 years old and “camping” for 2 years. I admire your courage and dedication to leave family & friends to follow your values to teach those truly in need. Your are also teaching by example: by knitting in front of the kids so they learn they to can make useful & beautiful things, by making a garden wall from discarded plastic bottles, by decorating your home, etc, I think that actions speak much more loudly than words, and you are doing exactly that. Thank you for sharing your intimate thoughts and experiences. Your blogs are also informing us about the culture & difficulties that I am too afraid to experience myself. I hope that you make Zulu friends soon.
    Hang in there, Diane

  8. Karen – everyone who follows your blog is in awe – the endeavour, the struggle, the progress – but most of all, you.

    Your list of attributes must be updated to include ‘big-hearted’, ‘tenacious’, ‘wonderfully human.’

    Oh, and ‘artistic’.

    And ‘has successfully grown three perfect radishes.’

    Hats off to you – hang in.

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