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msingatop

Long time, no update! Before getting here, we had both planned on blogging more regularly. Indeed, it is now September and we last updated in May. Whoops.

Just over a year ago, we received our invitations to serve in South Africa.

Exactly this time last year, we were somewhere along the US/Canada border, midway through an Eastern Canada road trip, scrambling to send the slew of additional legal documents to Peace Corps. After the invite, it’s almost like going through the application process all over again between the medical and legal tasks. When PST was rough, we thought about how brutal it was slogging through all of that in a short period of time.

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We’ve been in South Africa for over 7 months. We moved to our permanent site in mid-April. We are in Msinga Municipality, right in the middle of KwaZulu-Natal. The name in isiZulu roughly translates to “the whirlpool”, referring to the wild crosswinds that blow through the Tugela River valley.

Over time, the culture shock finally started to wear off. Things like the extremely overwhelming crowded market area downtown now are merely a maze to navigate around, between the vegetable sellers, cows, taxis parked all over, drunk men, and vehicles driving in all directions, including onto the few stretches of sidewalk that exist.

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The news and jokes people make start to make more sense and feel more familiar.

Something that admittedly hasn’t been as easy to get used to is the public transit situation. As PCVs, we are not allowed to drive during work hours. (Our site is also a bit unusual in that there are many international healthcare workers and volunteers here, all of whom are banned from taking public transit….and are horrified that we take it). Fortunately, we don’t have to take taxis often, as pretty much everything we need is right here at our site. This is unusual and far removed from the experience of most other PCVs in South Africa, as most PCVs are in deep rural sites, whereas our site is more of a township.

Really, it’s not too tough being here in terms of our physical comfort. We live in a much nicer house all to ourselves, no roommates or nosy neighbors (aside from a friendly stray dog and a baby goat) on the grounds of our org, a step down palliative care unit for adults that is an extension of the local district hospital. In the morning, we hear our next door neighbors, the Department of Health Mobile Clinic team, beginning their work day with singing and praying. Occasionally, we’ve found a TB patient sneaking a cigarette in our yard. The people who live behind the org’s campus seem to run some sort of taxi repair shop and tend to do this work at night. Aside from that, no one bothers us. Some might think this is a barrier to integration – quite the opposite, as we have space, time, and most luxurious of all, PRIVACY. Even better, no roosters!

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In March, we visited our permanent site in Msinga for the first time. It was late afternoon by the time we made it from Pretoria to Pietermartizburg, the capital city of KZN. On the way to Msinga, we passed by rolling green hills of sugarcane. I thought to myself, “Hmm, not too bad.”

The landscape abruptly changes upon crossing into Msinga. It’s so stark. Lush fields recede to rocky, arid aloe and cactus strewn rugged hills. All the plants have spikes on them. It was familiar somehow, not unlike Twentynine Palms, California. Dry desert, big steep rocky canyons, strange desert plants, albeit with much scarier roads in questionable condition.

Rian Malan in My Traitor’s Heart (1989) summed up his first observations of the area succintly: “less grass, less hope, more goats”.

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An NGO manager we met more recently said, “oh yeah, it looks like Mars out there”.

Then there’s the big mountain. It’s called KwaKopi and not going to lie, it is terrifying.  Especially when you get to the cliff side stretch at the top of the mountain…eish. There is a massive roadworks improvement project trying to repair the long stretch of the road that snakes along the cliff. Giant potholes, patches of guardrail, taxis in questionable states of repair, overloaded bakkies packed with refrigerators and people, and tractor trailers vying to pass one another. The taxis tend to swerve as close and as quickly to the edge of the road as they can in vain attempts to avoid the potholes. Gogos clutch the backs of the seats, a man next to us once started praying. You know it’s bad when the men show they are scared.

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It’s beautiful, though

 

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Mid-April through mid-July:

The first three months at site are dedicated towards integrating into our community, getting to know different organizations, facilities, stakeholders, and also just meeting lots of people period. We were working on our Community Needs Assessments during this time, a big long report all about our area, local government, health facilities, other orgs, etc. It’s also known as the “no work” period. During this time we made our introductions and shadowed all over, mainly with the local Department of Health mobile clinic teams, the anti-retroviral (ARV) clinic, and other healthcare organizations. We met really interesting people from the community (grocers, butchers, young men, nurses, doctors, teachers, vegetable sellers, etc).

Being in South Africa has also allowed us to meet a lot of people not from South Africa – some Americans, some from the UK, Germany, and many from other countries. There are a number of healthcare professionals at the local hospital who are from elsewhere – the Netherlands, Cuba, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We have also met people in our wider community who are refugees or asylum seekers from other countries in Africa, such as the DRC, Burundi, Rwanda, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. It’s been really amazing having the opportunity and time to get to know them.

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The head nurse at the palliative care unit helped us make some initial introductions to the community, starting with our neighbors, the DoH Mobile Team. It went something like this:

“These are doctors from Yale. They want to learn about what you are doing here. Please let them observe your work.”

“Uh well. I guess you could say we are prospective nursing students. We are volunteers from Peace Corps. Igama lami ngingu…”. And we usually end with “Siyazama” – we are trying.

The audience is already bored, and they are also clearly busy and getting ready for the hundreds of patients they will be seeing that day. Noting the glazed over looks, people shifting in their seats, and the lack of interest people have dealing with these sweaty foreigners at 8am, we keep it short.

“Peace Corps?” People often pronounce the Corps more like “corpse”.

“Can you give a shot?” Well, technically we both know how to (from witnessing countless IMs administered), but that doesn’t mean we should. PCVs, even if they are trained medical professionals in the US, are not allowed to practice abroad. We settled on helping the nursing assistants with filling out the medical records (all paper here!).

We both took the settling in/integration period seriously, as it is a crucial time to get to know people and get a sense of the community’s current needs, past projects, what has worked and what hasn’t. And also establish what we can and cannot do.

Defining our roles here is perhaps the most important part of the settling in period. It was interesting navigating expectations.

Why are you doing the Community Needs Assessment again? It has already been done! Things may have changed, and each volunteer brings a different perspective, skillset, as well as interests.

Are we here to be office workers? No.

Can you give me money for school? No.

Are we here to donate our vast personal funds to poor people? No.

Can you give me a new Bible? No, and we are definitely not here to proselytize.

Then what use are you? Good question.

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Hence, the integration part. In addition to laying down work boundaries and figuring out what we are capable of working on, this three month period is a crucial time to get to know what people’s issues are on the ground level, day to day. And to begin to grasp the myriad complexities of said issues. It’s also a time to identify compassionate, motivated people in the community who want to lead projects – we can come in and help support them.

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Sometimes it is very busy – we shadowed a mobile clinic outreach campaign that reached over 500 patients in 4 hours. It sounds like madness, but it was extremely efficient. TB screening, women’s health, nutrition screening, childhood immunizations and wellness checks, HIV testing and counseling – and more! One of the nurses did over 25 Pap smears!

Occasionally, there are some days when, in spite of our best efforts, transportation falls through, appointments get rescheduled or forgotten, and the highlight of our day was watching a tumbleweed blow by. (We’d never seen a real tumbleweed before. It was just like in cartoons, except real life).

But it’s amazing how even with downtime, it’s not really downtime here. There is always something to do or someone to talk to. We’re constantly thinking and researching, learning about South African government and research initiatives to better healthcare services, learning about what’s happening at other hospitals and NGOs in KwaZulu-Natal and the rest of South Africa, and trying to connect with as many people as possible during our relatively short time here in South Africa.

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As health volunteers under the umbrella of PEPFAR, we are primarily here to promote HIV/AIDS awareness in the community. Our community is doing a GREAT job in this area, in terms of HIV testing and basic awareness (there is literally a public service announcement EVERY TWENTY MINUTES on the local radio stations about HIV and other health issues), but there are other gaps that need to be addressed such as deep stigma and TB education amongst other health issues. Also the deeper issues and other problematic things such as gender-based violence, education gaps in terms of understanding of health issues, and identifying holistic ways in which we can help unite providers and other organizations to better address community issues. In order to best build capacity, the conclusion we came to for our community is that we want to help people here find ways to develop their ideas and advance their work and projects themselves.

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local hospital, they recently widened the gate and didn’t adjust the sign accordingly

In terms of our roles so far: we’re not going to build physical structures (they already have a really nice library here actually, with a computer lab and air conditioning), but maybe we can help identify at-risk young women and serodiscordant couples in a study to prevent HIV transmission; we’re not going to solve serious and systematic transportation issues, but maybe we can help anticipate transport costs and other barriers to healthcare access; we’re also not going to teach in schools, but we can help facilitate early childhood development research in a rural setting.

It’s been important to slow down and recognize our American attitudes towards work that we didn’t think would be as strong but are when you’re spending three months not working and hanging out with people who mostly are working. Especially as we were approaching month three and conversations were starting to go a bit more like this:

Nurse: “So… what are you guys going to work on?”

Us: “We don’t know quite yet, we’re trying to find that out”

Nurse: “So…why are you here?”

Us: “We are…still trying to figure that out.”

The integration period really never ends. We’re in a pretty big town, and while it works to our advantage in some ways that people from the community are generally used to the presence of foreigners, we still have to establish what we are and why we are here. People are used to two types of foreigners: doctors and missionaries. Being neither is a bit confusing.

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It’s taken time, but we’ve started getting into a workflow of sorts. We are working on ongoing research and helping to bridge a gap and build continuity between researchers at the hospital. We’ve also used our time here as an opportunity to reach out to other researchers who are working on HIV and TB prevention and treatment studies in South Africa. Additionally, we are currently helping facilitate another research pilot with a different organization focused on early childhood development. It’s still in the very early stages – fingers crossed! We’ve also been helping another organization with a health education project on common diseases and conditions aside from HIV (hypertension, stroke, etc).

So far, so good.

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Yes there are exciting wild animals like zebras…albeit about two and a half hours away.

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Part 3: PST…

Neighborhood kids at the Dancing House

First, a video!

*****

Along with the process of settling in to our new home for the next 10 weeks, living with our host family and getting to know our little community, the main adjustment hurdle soon revealed itself to be: the schedule.

The schedule felt relentless.

Having transitioned immediately from years of evening and overnight schedules to a crack of dawn wakeup in a different time zone was ROUGH.

Our daily routine was super structured, another aspect neither of us were all that used to, having had autonomy for a good chunk of our lives and having had jobs where we had a decent amount of control over our schedules.

The daily routine, Monday through Saturday, was something like this:

5:45am – wake up, with the intention of working out before the sun became unbearable and swarms of children would inevitably appear, ready to impress us with their English and imitate every move  — just our very existence was entertaining, as it’s uncommon to see outsiders in the community, let alone nearly three dozen Americans in a small area

6:15am – STILL WAY TOO EARLY, actually get out of bed, wash up and brush teeth, pit latrine, etc, maybe wash some dishes left over from the previous day, cook.

Dishwashing system in action

Cooking took a long time. At first we were using a semi-functioning hot plate, but one day it finally died and there was moment of panic between us and our host mother as we all contemplated not being able to cook dinner that night…or maybe even ever again. But then! The stove (which had been used as a table) became functional again. We never really understood the hot plate to stove transition (nor did our language teacher, who would check in and help translate).

YELLOW SPLIT PEAS!!!

Cooking was a big deal, and perhaps the only source of autonomy we had during PST. We were able to be pretty creative with the groceries Peace Corps delivered — even managed to make some crumbly DIY paneer (recipe here — tip: don’t use UHT processed milk, this was all we had, hence the crumbly, ricotta texture) and lentil dal!

The best were egg sandwiches. So simple, so good, so fast, so much PROTEIN.

Our host family did cook for us sometimes, but with both of us following either a vegetarian diet or a strong preference to avoid pilchards and chicken feet, our options were more limited. They gave us the respectful freedom to cook our own meals. Our host father was bemused by our strange diets, and also enjoyed reminding us of all the meat that we weren’t eating ended up in his stomach, and then would proceed to crack more Robert Mugabe jokes.

Did you hear the one about all the cows that he slaughtered for his birthday? Hundreds! Disgusting, right?

7:15 or 7:45am – Depending on the day, we’d leave the house and either rush to catch the bus (I’m chronically late) or rush to our language teacher’s house on the other side of the village.

Along the commute to language class

Greetings would factor in at many points throughout the morning and evening. Greeting is just what you do in South Africa. Beyond just being polite, the act of greeting denotes respect, it acknowledges the other person. Even if you greet what feels like hundreds of times per day and can’t manage to continue the conversation beyond the basic ‘Hello how are you/I am well, how are you/I am also well, Thank you/Thank you also, good day’ structure, it shows you’re trying, even if the only other Sepedi word you managed to learn in two months was “moroha” (spinach). Getting greeted by neighbors (sometimes sight unseen, they would call out a friendly “Le kai?” and it would be unclear what direction it was coming from…or how they spotted us, but we all really stuck out).

Small children were different. They would get in on it, too, but less for social formalities and more for entertainment, shouting “How are you?!! OWAHHYOU?!! HOW ARRRRRREEE YOUUUUUU” and giggling “MAHUA! MAHUA!” (Sepedi for “white person”). We had been forewarned about the enthusiasm of small children, but it was a whole different level in the training village. It was probably even a game amongst them to spot the weird foreigners who had temporarily invaded their homes. The thing is with “mahua”, one can really drag it out for emphasis and yell “MAHHHOOOOOOOOOOWAHHHHH“, alerting all the small children in the neighborhood to be ready to swarm. Walking by, there would frequently be an onslaught of “How are you how are you how ARE YOU“s. The funny part would be responding with “I’m ok, how are you?” and getting a shocked, tiny, muttered “Iamfine” (one word) in response. Such a letdown, as the game would end at that point; our Sepedi was as rudimentary as their English. So we would wave and continue our separate ways.

We found that attempting to respond further in our extremely limited Sepedi was often met with disappointment by small children eager to bust out their English skills. Once, when we were a little further on in language training and eager to test our newly acquired Zulu skills (just kidding, most of my daily conversations are “how are you? I am fine, thank you. It is hot out. Yes! Good bye, stay well!”), we responded in Zulu. The kids shouted “NO ZULU! SPEAK ENGLISH!”

In general, we do not take pictures of random children without parental consent. However, these kids demanded a picture. 

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8ish – arrive at the mostly abandoned agricultural college that we had PST classes at or the language teacher’s host family’s garage, where language classes were held.

Cow break time lining up with our break time

CLASS! Everything ranging from South African history and culture, to epidemiology 101, discussion panels (these were awesome), medical and safety sessions, and technical tools. Amongst other things. It all kind of blurred together after awhile. Long days. Hot days. Icebreakers.  And more decaf instant coffee than we will ever consume in the rest of our lives.

5:30pm – leave the agricultural college, sometimes with a detour to the grocery store on the way back. Language days would end earlier, but were just as mentally exhausting trying to quickly learn an entirely new language in an area that did not speak said language. That, coupled with the heat.

6:15pm (ish) – arrive home, attempt to walk to regain some sense of autonomy and go to GYM

Gym-ing was something our host mother didn’t really understand (as she already routinely did physically exhausting work such as pushing wheelbarrows full of giant, full containers of water), but accepted was just something we needed to do — lift rocks and be weird. No monthly fee necessary.

We would also get to see local neighborhood sites like what we called the Dancing House, where a huge group of kids would gather and dance to super fast, upbeat music before sundown.

One of our first weeks in the village, our host sister pulled us aside one day and took us on a walk.

“You HAVE GOT to see this!” She said, without explanation. “They’re always doing this!”

And she was right! We called them the “Dancing House” kids. They were a frequent, wonderful presence to see after a looooong day. One evening, Nelisiwe, our incredible Language Teacher (and future comedienne/TV personality) and fellow Trainees Grace and Nikki joined them!

7:00pm – reassure host family that we were still alive (PST has a curfew at sundown), cook dinner and sometimes the next day’s lunch, attempt to study Zulu (but usually were too tired). Sometimes we would talk with our host sister and her friends, she would bemoan us not having more free time to hang out or being allowed to go out at night (we made plans for when she comes to Durban for university). Sometimes we would watch tv with them during dinner if she was home (Generations! the big South African soapie).

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Sometimes we would also get a whiff of garbage burning — no trash disposal here.

9:00pm – bath routine — fill small bucket, drag large bucket in, bathe, drag buckets back outside, dump the water, admire the stars and try to figure out what constellations we could see

For bathing, we had buckets. So many buckets. Many buckets of different sizes. Perfect for dish washing, human washing, laundry, and also for nocturnal bathroom emergencies when the back door was locked and it was pitch dark and there were snakes and other unknown night time threats lurking about. There was an unspoken system of buckets that we never quite figured out (the language barrier was a factor here, but also our host family being polite). But we tried. And we bathed. Bathing was (we’re saying was because we have the good fortune of piped water at our permanent site) something of a daily ordeal. South Africans are fastidiously clean and will definitely judge you if you skip bathing — twice daily preferably in spite of the water situation, but definitely at least once a day.

We would get a big bucket and fill another smaller bucket from the Jojo, drag it inside, bathe by standing in the big tub and pouring water from the other bucket with a cup, struggle not to spill bathwater all over the floor (which, I inevitably would), mop it up with the grungy sad towel we reserved exclusively for that purpose. It’s not really complicated, but it’s a routine, and it’s time consuming, stressful when water was running low.

9:45pm – bed! fall asleep to “Imali” playing somewhere nearby, usually the tavern

Or “Gobisiqolo”:

1am – 30+ chicken family wakeup call, with donkeys braying in the distance. Feel strange, increasingly intense dislike towards roosters. As squawking continues, develop increasing dislike for roosters. Wonder what roosters would taste like. Does anyone eat roosters? No idea.

I hate you

3am – another false rooster alarm

5:45am – hit snooze, curse roosters

6:15am – repeat previous day

*****

One morning, I woke up early to go to the bathroom and encountered our host father gazing admiringly at his chicken family. “Ahhhhh, Kentucky!” (yes, as in Colonel Sanders) he said to me, with a huge smile on his face. “Tonight, I must slaughter one of them! Meat, Meat, Meat!” He loves his chickens dearly and refers to them as his children, albeit tasty ones.

*****

The most interesting parts of PST were the days when we had discussion panels.

One of the most moving discussions was with people living with HIV/AIDS. Most had (somehow) survived the days before Anti-Retroviral Treatment was available and been close to death. One had lost her young child to HIV prior to widespread availability of ART. The impact of HIV/AIDS has been absolutely devastating, particularly in South Africa, which has the highest prevalence in the world.

There was another panel where people from various organizations with approaches to combatting the spread of HIV/AIDS. It was a diverse group – home based care givers, traditional healers, and a Catholic priest with a very refreshingly progressive and accepting approach to sex education. It was interesting to hear their perspectives and helped ground in the fact that regardless of one’s personal views, it is important to have a holistic approach to treatment and care of patients and link agencies – even when these agencies may have completely different approaches to care. Many people in South Africa don’t necessarily talk about it, but they do tend to visit traditional healers for care and take different forms of “muthi” (traditional medicine). Religion is a huge part of life here and deeply embedded in the culture.

*****

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Sundays weren’t really day off — it was always LAUNDRY DAY.

This was also a convenient way to avoid hours long church sessions. Church services tend to be long and hot here, and neither of us being religious, we both made personal decisions not to attend. The singing in the distance was a nice soundtrack to scrubbing (well, more like pretending to do the hand scrub motion that our host sister and friends would insist we MUST do [and would still continue to nod in disapproval when we did make half-assed attempts to do so to appease them]). We’d eventually hang our laundry, read a bit and have another cup of Ricoffee, and then commence a few hours of attempting to find personal space.

The thing about village life is that you’re never really alone. Which is a good thing if you’ve had a rough day and come back from class and our host sister’s best friend is over and wants to hang out and talk. Or if neighborhood teenagers stop by to covertly ask for dating advice. Or if you are someone that likes a lot of company all the time. But if you’re not, too bad! Boundaries are a bit different here. Pointed questions about our lack of children and even lower desire to have them were frequent. Comments about bodies are honest and sometimes even refreshingly blunt, but you have to be in the mood. One day I was cooking, and my host sister and her friend appeared and said “Ah, you are not like the others (referring to white people in general, I guess)…you cook very nice things and (pointing to my ass) yours, it is like ours…round, not like the others…whose are flat….how?” This would probably be extremely rude in the US, but here, although normally they were fucking with me, it was typically indirect compliment! I’ll take it!

But sometimes, we craved privacy. Ok, more often than just occasionally. Also not being so much of a spectacle. One time, we went out running with our host sister and her friend and amassed a crowd of 40 children. Not even exaggerating — we counted! They surrounded us. We were like Z-list celebrities, just existing and garnering tons of attention.

Our host sister and friend were annoyed and said “they’re only doing this because you guys are…different.” She explained that in her few, part of the entertainment factor came from this. “They think you are special because of the fact that you’re white. We know but, they don’t because they are just kids.”

The attention is amusing to extent, but there’s also a lot of pain with it. The underlying issue is race and economic disparities cut along those lines…to reduce it to a very simple level. Part of the issue was being caught in the completely fucked up reality that even in a predominantly black, post-apartheid, born free society, young kids are still getting the messages that white is something to be desired. We would both always try to reinforce their own beauty, but it’s still so crushing to see such young children still feeling this.

And while we both knew it on an well, obvious level, and are actively trying to be aware in more nuanced ways, we actually felt the strangeness and novelty of encountering a “mahua” in the village when we came across one unknown to us one Sunday morning. She was another young American — a missionary who had been doing some sort of evangelizing outreach church stuff in the village for a few years and was also SHOCKED to see other mahuas.

“Who are you guys?” She asked, bemused. “It’s just that here, I never see any other…”

We gave our little canned Peace Corps “why we’re here even though it seems thoroughly illogical haha yeah I know” spiel (in English!). She mentioned she had considered the Peace Corps, but was ultimately led in other directions.

And then she said, “Wait, so you live with the…black…people?!”

She was shocked, as were we. Yikes, man!

She drove off in a late model SUV and we never saw her again. Which is probably for the best.

*****

Our favorite PST hideaway, a nature reserve at the edge of a dam, just a short taxi ride away

Sundays were good days for little…escapes.

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We’d go for a long walk…and somehow, the whole village would know. Worse, people in the village would call our host mother worried that we would die from walking 4 miles. It was nice that people were concerned and watching out for our safety, don’t get me wrong! But sometimes we just wanted to be adults again. A little bit of independence, unscheduled. Just for an hour or two. We found an alternate route, a cow path at the edge of town that eventually met up with the main tar road a few miles down, where the only people we ever encountered were the occasional farmer or cow herder. Otherwise, it was silent except for the birds.

When it was really TOO MUCH, we would take a taxi to the next town (where we had some relative anonymity) and visit the nature reserve. This was sooooo freeing, and a great way to learn the taxi system.

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Also found a good place to get a haircut:

One of the much nicer taxis

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*****

There are a few breaks in the rigorous PST schedule (distinguished only by blocks on our schedules by color coded to delineate the day’s subject matter…ah, yes, today is a YELLOW day, tomorrow is a GREEN day). Early on we got to SITE SHADOW with different volunteers for a few days and get their perspective on their sites, projects they were working on, and also meet friends! Some were a year into service, others closer to closing their service. (We’ll talk about each of our site visits in a future post!)

About a month and a half into the daily grind of PST, SITE ANNOUNCEMENTS and SITE VISITS made PST feel like it had an end point. The visits were super interesting and gave us a chance to get to see our community, have a sense of what day to day living there would be, meet our host organizations and other orgs in the area. We had the good fortune of being hosted by the outgoing volunteers and having time to talk to them about their successes and challenges.

We also had occasional field trips. Yes, FIELD TRIPS. Like being in middle school again. And they’re GREAT. We got to visit a few museums and then had FREE TIME when we would get to go to the MALL after. This sounds kind of well, not cool, but it’s AMAZING. Also very jarring. The malls are like a trip to America. A bizarrely…comforting…no, more of a small reprieve.

Another PST coping skill: Petting tiny puppies

Overall, PST is a massive adjustment and learning phase. Between getting adjusted to a new culture, new climate, new language, trying and failing to do basic things like communicate with our host mother about plans for the day, there’s virtually no time for downtime to recuperate and reflect.

Sometimes we just wanted a croissant. And real coffee. That’s all. And personal space.

Small, comforting things like that.

After, we would usually come back home to our host mother watching WWE wrestling — she was SO into it!

*****

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PST grinded on, but towards the end, Family Appreciation Day ended up being a SUPER FUN event. It was definitely our highlight of PST! Especially because our host father was home for it! Peace Corps staff slaughtered a cow for the ceremony and all of the host families (and many of their friends) came to partake in a day of food, dance, music, and celebration.

Our host father was very much excited to attend. We showed him pictures of the cow post-chopping – he was ecstatic and could not stop talking about it! He loves meat. Like, seriously LOVES meat.

Who loves meat? THIS GUY.

After a packed morning of events, we gave certificates of appreciation to our families. And then at commenced our family’s favorite part — the MEAT!

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Christina & Charles, demonstrating that a couple that eats MEAT together, STAYS TOGETHER

*****

Not long after Family Appreciation Day, PST wrapped up! We survived!!!
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We had our swearing in ceremony in Pretoria on April 7th and became official Volunteers!

We also gained our first fan!

And then we moved to site — in beautiful, rural KwaZulu-Natal province!

More to come…next time we have internet access!

Posted in PST

Part Two: Assimilating to Life with a Host Family

Sunset at the edge of the village

 

After Orientation, we were excited and ready for the next step.

IMG_7490 (2)Moving to the training village for the next phase was… well, interesting. To be honest, immensely stressful. The transition from the quiet old game lodge where Orientation was held to a busy village was concurrent with the rigors of Pre-Service Training, 6 days a week was rough.

Meeting the host families was like being on a weird reality show. PC trainees got driven out to an elementary school in an undisclosed location where a massive crowd awaited us. Here we met our would-be host families in a classroom where we were introduced in Sepedi and handed over one-by-one in a dramatic, suspenseful fashion. Families excitedly welcomed their new American children (ranging from our early 20s to late 50s).

Our host mother seemed overwhelmed at first — she was the only host parent who got two of us! This was further complicated by limited English on her part, and no Sepedi or Afrikaans on ours apart from greetings, but she quickly welcomed us into our home, made us eggs and toast, and showed us around.

Then immediately after we put our luggage in our new room, without explanation, she took us on a trek to the other side of the village and introduced us to her extended family members. It was a hot day, it must have been over 100 degrees. The sun was relentless.

All of the adults gathered in the small spots of shade in the dusty yard. Water was our most immediate concern that day, as it continued to be the first few weeks. We had been warned thoroughly during orientation not to drink the local water unless it had been run through our Peace Corps provided ceramic water filters, and had yet to be able to successfully assemble ours. So, we drank boiled water. Which hadn’t quite cooled down. We played off that we liked drinking hot water in order to avoid a more confusing explanation and potentially offending our hosts further, who were already concerned that we did not take up their offers of ice. We were offered food (pap, chicken, fruit, etc.), interesting beverages (some sort of strongly smelling milky beverage, perhaps about 100 proof, heavy with bottom shelf vodka on the nose, that we regrettably had to decline due to the “dry PST” policy), and the task of entertaining the children and adults. This wasn’t difficult, merely our strange sufficed.

We attempted to explain our role as Peace Corps volunteers and why we were here (difficult enough as is given that we did not quite yet understand that ourselves, even more difficult with the language barrier). Our hosts seemed mildly offended that we did not partake in their offerings of various alcoholic beverages, and eventually came to the conclusion that we must be missionaries. This seems fair and even logical. After a few more mugs of “white lightnings”, which is basically traditional beer mixed with vodka, Uncle Rocks decided, “Ahhh, now I understand. So you are like the Red Cross….except you are different because you are sent by God!” and introduced us to everyone else as such, which was met with a round of “ohhhhhhh okay”s.

We were frequently asked for bibles throughout PST, and to be honest, the only other white person we encountered in the village, aside from fellow Peace Corps people, was an actual missionary. (More on that one later in this post!) Can’t say I blame them for being confused, you don’t see too many outsiders in areas like this otherwise.

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Traditional sorghum beer

*****

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The training village is in a rural, flat part of northeastern Mpumalanga not far from the capital city of Pretoria, but practically a world away. For us, outside of the old resort where the orientation was held, it’s first real experience actually living in South Africa. The majority of people in the area spoke Sepedi or Setswana at home. Thick red dust frequently blows inside. Our host mother was constantly sweeping it out of the house, only for it to blow back in with the next a hot breeze. When it rains, which is rare, the deeply rutted dirt roads become virtually impassable.

Just a half-hour drive away are lush irrigated farmlands, and just another half-hour away are the outer exurbs of Pretoria which look like Los Angeles, albeit bordered by shack settlements cropping up along the outer edges.

In the village, with the perpetual dust clouds, with few trees and cows, goats and donkeys roaming freely — the remnants of its history as a former homeland were still glaringly obvious. 23 years after the end of apartheid, most households in this area do not have running water and rely on pit latrines for toilets, though electricity is fairly reliable at least. Piped water directly to homes is a rarity. Most households rely on water delivery trucks (for a fee), rainfall collected into Jojos and large oil drums, or the sometimes running public pump filling stations scattered throughout the village. Most families do not have cars. Internet is nonexistent, but pretty much everyone has a cell phone. In terms of commerce, tuck shops (the bodegas of South Africa) sell the basics. Some are even attached to taverns, which as you could probably divine, sell your basic beers and hard liquor — the difference is they tend to blare house music and operate most hours of the day. (Try getting served in Boston 4am!). Children roam free, playing soccer, dancing in yards, and looking for mischief. Neighbors stop to chat on the way to and from work. Everyone knows everyone.

Baby donkey
Baby donkey at abandoned car wash

As so few people have cars, most rely on the informal systems of public transit to get around. There are buses and big lorries that pick up workers. Most people use minibus taxis, which are in various states of disrepair depending on where you are. They usually get you where you need to go…eventually. Schedules aren’t really a thing in these parts for a number of reasons. To hail one, you just wait…a long time, on the side of the road in the direction in which you are hoping to (eventually) go. Generally it’s just sort of a riding experience that one tolerates, not exactly comfortable, usually extremely cramped. (Sometimes it turns into a party bus with men passing shots around. Usually not, though.) The constant threat of harassment is always present. As a female passenger, I always try to sit near the older women. (Not unlike in back in the good ol’ US of A — avoiding drunk men is always to be advised anywhere. Anecdotally, I’ve faced much worse street harassment in Boston).

On the way back from the grocery store, a taxi driver said to us, “You know, I’ve heard many Americans don’t know who their neighbors are. Is this true? Here we know everyone and we watch out for each other. I know everyone’s last names, their children, and they’re all welcome whenever we have parties.” I thought about it, and it was true. I never really knew most of my more recent neighbors in cities. I’m sure it varies, and maybe I’ll feel differently if we manage to stay in one place longer than a year or two in the US.

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There’s a lot of pride in the area. It’s home. Generations of families have been raised here. For the elderly, it seems especially beneficial. Gogos (grandmothers, or basically any woman over 50) have rich social lives and tend to stay active doing yardwork, cooking, running households and other tasks, such as sunning on Gogo blankets and playing with grandchildren. Our family’s Gogo is in her 90s (you would never know it), living independently and is frequently visited by her family.

*****

For our host father, he grew up in this village, and even though he works far away most of the year, he still considers it to be his home. It is the place where his grandparents lived and is where he built his own home. He teaches languages and coaches rugby at a school not far from the Botswana border and is only able to return home about once a month. Of this, he said, “It’s because of apartheid, still, that we travel so far and live without running water.” And apartheid has continued — disguised through economics and ongoing geographic isolation. The fact that a tenured teacher who is technically in the middle class does not have running water at his home, but does at the flat he stays at where he is a language teacher in a wealthier area, is definitely a sore spot. The sense of what it is to be middle class for him is reminiscent of the struggles of middle class people in the US — often trying to make ends meet. Due to his schedule, he isn’t able to take on additional work. But having secured a good teaching position that he is passionate about — he absolutely loves the kids he works with and is SO proud of their achievements, he even has one student who is going to attend university in the US on a scholarship — and his age, it is not realistic to change positions. Many of his colleagues have emigrated to Australia for higher paying positions. He is baffled that his daughter could potentially earn more money in the US working at a coffee shop. As a teacher, he makes too much to qualify for government housing, but not enough for another home in a different area with reliable municipal services, nor a car. Further, it would be difficult to move, as his entire family lives in town and they all rely on each other, not to mention that they take pride in their neighborhood. As he explained, service deliveries should instead be equally distributed, regardless of who lives in the neighborhood.

Service delivery is an ongoing and extremely contentious issue throughout South Africa. The simmering tension and justifiable anger and exasperation on the part of residents is palpable, occasionally boiling over into protests. Not in our training village, however. They at least have reliable water truck delivery service (for a fee) and water pumps that are…somewhat functioning. Some communities don’t even have that. Water is a constant chore when one does not have piped water. One day, we followed our host father to the local water pump about a block down from our house (which, he pointed out, is frequently non-functional). He pushed over a wheelbarrow full of several jugs, a chore he had been performing the entire day as rainfall had not come in several weeks and the house’s Jojo was nearly empty.

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Water collection during rainfall
Another mechanism of collecting rainfall — an old oil drum re-purposed!

It was frustrating. The next town over has service AND running water in homes. The local reservoir is full in spite of the recent severe drought, surely there is enough for this village, too. That day, he had collected about 50 jugs — the shed in the yard was full of them. This would, hopefully, last until the next rainfall and spare his wife the physical exertion. “Ah, yes, the SHE must rest today. And the HE will do the work!” He proceeded to rake and sweep the yard, feed the chickens, and cook dinner.

For now, he teaches and coaches, returns home when he can, and furthers his studies for a masters degree in teaching, and supports his children to continue their education and careers. Also, he loves meat, the Orlando Pirates, and loves telling Robert Mugabe jokes.

President Robert Mugabe sleeping through President Buhari's inauguration in Nigeria last week
Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe “resting his eyes” at a meeting

*****

Tavern
One of several local taverns — don’t let the barbed wire put you off, this place gets hopping! This particular one also hosted a Drag Ball!

For the youth, in general, it’s harder to accept this massive economic divide. It seems pretty free for the younger children, safe to roam outside at most hours, into the evenings (and past Peace Corps Trainees’ sunset curfews). But for the older teenagers, it’s tough, because they are acutely aware of the state of their country. Taverns offer a social outlet…to an extent. Soccer is another favored outlet. But what do you do after school if you can pass matric (12th grade in South Africa), is the underlying question that plagues most youth we spoke with. Much like small rural communities in the US, the trappings of village life can be difficult to avoid. There are limited work opportunities, if any, and most have to travel to major cities Pretoria, Johannesburg, and beyond for work. Teen pregnancy rates are high. Alcohol and drug abuse are common issues. What’s different is the prevalence of HIV/AIDS — and it is a constant underlying threat, with the highest incidence of infections in the world. Our host family’s oldest two children live and work in Pretoria. The youngest dreams of attending university in Durban and is working to complete matric.

It was also kind of jarring coming across a teen boys hanging on a dusty corner (with donkeys, chickens and cows) wearing Supreme and Vans. Kids are super stylish here in general. Sometimes I would wonder, do I have heatstroke, or am I in some weird not yet “discovered” and condofied outer part of Brooklyn? Doesn’t matter how rural we are, nor which province we’re in. Youth culture here has ton of similarities to youth culture in America. Our first night with the host family, our host daughter invited us to watch the Beyonce and Jay-Z concert with her and her friends on satellite tv.

Even when we went shopping, it was clear how widely American culture proliferates.

Exhibit A: items we found at clothing stores. What’s in? New York City — specifically Harlem, The Bronx, and STATEN. And also South Dakota got a few mentions. Who knew?

Up next: PST…

Part One: Arriving in South Africa

Dusk in Mpumalanga

Sanibonani!

Greetings from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa!!!

Our home for the next two years, situated just two hours north of Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal

We currently have WIFI (rare, glorious, and super fast!) and are celebrating our 4 month anniversary in country with pizza and our first blog post. Woohoo!

The past few months have been INTENSE and it feels like we’re just finally hitting a point where things more balanced and in our control. Sometimes we even get glimpses of what we might be able to do now that we have begun the integration phase at our permanent site in Msinga District, KwaZulu-Natal.

A quick recap of the past few months:

  • left our jobs in mid-January, moved (last minute), sold our car, said our goodbyes to as many people as possible

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  • had a lovely few days in Philadelphia during Staging (the part that happens before Pre-Service Training, a Pre-Pre-Service Training with lots of icebreakers and the first time we met all the fellow volunteers in our cohort, also a nice time to run around Philadelphia and soak up as much America as possible before training [in our case, veggie burgers and Pliny the Elders kakhulu at Monk’s Cafe])

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  • a middle of the night departure from Philadelphia to JFK, followed by a nap on the floor of JFK International
  • and then an extremely long flight…

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The flight was super long, 15+ hours — we kept falling asleep, waking up, and realizing we were still somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. Nothing was visible for hours until we were flying over the red sands of Namibia in the early morning hours. Just a short while later, the next thing we knew we were touching down at OR Tambo airport and catching our first glimpse of South Africa (which honestly, in parts looks like suburban Los Angeles) where we were greeted by Peace Corps staff.

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A warm welcome from PC staff!

After posing for a group photo, our luggage was hauled into trucks and the group followed immediately by piling into taxis and heading to our Orientation site in northwestern Mpumalanga.

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A brief overview of the Peace Corps training process

For non-Peace Corps folks (maybe even those thinking of applying!), we have about 800,000 various little acronyms and singular words that carry outsize meaning that will make no sense to the outside layperson reading this. (We’ll do our best. The acronyms annoy us, too, sometimes.) We haven’t seen a lot of blogs that cover the weeks of training prior to officially becoming a volunteer (probably because there is virtually no time in the busy schedules of Trainees to get into this), so we’re including a bit about that.

  • Staging — Before departing for the destination country where you serve, there is a one to two day orientation in a US city. In our case, Philadelphia!
  • Orientation — for us in South Africa, 10 days of intensive language and cultural orientation to get us prepped for the next phase — living with host families in a community!
  • PST/Home Stays — Pre-Service Training and living with host families in the training villages. For Health Volunteers, this is 10 long, exhaustive weeks of intensive training, six days a week. As Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Projects (Health Sector) volunteers in South Africa, this includes 10 weeks of assimilating, intensive (and sometimes exhaustive) courses about a variety of topics. All things South African, history, culture, discussion panels with people from South Africa about their experiences (our favorites by far), epidemiology, and intensive language training, and tons of other things that have faded into one, sweaty sweaty blur.
  • Swearing In – After completion of PST, comes a very official ceremony (catered!) where we take oaths and transition from Trainees to Volunteers
  • Community Needs Assessment – We get about 10 weeks post-Swearing In and arriving at our permanent sites to compile a big report of community needs tied in with the organizations Peace Corps matched us up with, sourced from actual members of the community and utilizing data from government reports to suss out sustainable projects that have community buy-in. That’s the intention, anyway. It’s a document that is intended to be a living one, as well as of use to the community for planning purposes. We’re about six weeks into this phase.

But before we bore you with the CNA stuff that we’re currently working on, we’ll delve into the question we get the most from folks back home:

So what exactly is it that you’re doing in the Peace Corps, again?

Good question! There seems to be this misconception out there that Peace Corps is just a few months, or that you can do it straight out of high school. It’s a 27 month commitment — education and experience varies by post and project type, but as for Health Volunteers the basic requirements are a 4 year college degree, and at least some volunteer and (preferably) work experience in the field. (Check out peacecorps.gov for the latest postings and more info!) As health volunteers in South Africa, we are working under Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Project Framework. Ultimately, the goal of projects we will implement is that they are community-guided — what people in the community want! The success of these projects is dependent on our capacity to work independently and build connections in our communities. It’s very open-ended and constantly evolving.

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After the whirlwind of Staging and running last minute errands in Philadelphia and landing in South Africa, immediately upon arrival began the next phase on our journey to becoming official Volunteers:

Orientation

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It was pretty surreal arriving in South Africa on minimal sleep and with major cases of jet lag — stepping out of the airport and getting a fresh blast of the hot South African summer, nerves from lack of sleep and the shock of realization of the HUGE commitment we had undertaken hitting us in waves, wondering if we maybe fucked up big time (come on, let’s be honest, it does seem at least a little bit insane to leave behind our pretty comfortable lives for a vague job description in an unspecified location in a country we’d never been to and with a new language to learn on top of it — to be announced, at the time). We were both so exhausted, but couldn’t sleep on the taxi van ride that immediately followed. Suburban Pretoria didn’t look like much from the road, lots of planned communities, neat and orderly behind tall security walls, visible from the highway.

We arrived about two hours later at an old resort where we would stay for the next 10 days. It was surprisingly nice. Maybe too nice, we were suspicious. Every meal was catered and delicious. We had an entire rondeval and TV with basic cable to ourselves. We even had an extra bedroom which we used to trap a creepy, gigantic wolf spider whose size seems to grow in hindsight.

There was a lot to take in even at the relatively staid environment of the old nature reserve. It gradually kept sinking in that we weren’t in America anymore.

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One of the most immediately appreciable differences is the wildlife. While we have moose and bears in the Northeast US and Canada, we do not have monkeys roaming freely. Here, marauding bands of rhesus macaques were lurking about ready to snag leftover tea biscuits and jump into open windows and radically redistribute the contents of our suitcases (what are monkeys even going to do with sunglasses???)

  • gigantic BABOONS running across the fields

BABOON

  • The HEAT, the SUN, and the SUNBURNS
  • The languages we’d never heard (South Africa has 11 official languages, not to mention hundreds of others)
  • Mystifying and unintelligible television programming (weather in Afrikaans, soap operas in every language, interesting game shows, Commonwealth country sports like cricket and rugby)
  • The buffets with endless varieties of peri-peri sauce!

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  • the veld landscape –plants we’d never seen outside of botanical gardens growing tall and wild, birds squawking,
  • the darkest skies and brightest constellations, and of course the 10 day communication blackout from the outside world while we awaited acquiring our South African SIM cards from the nearest shopping centre (which, given the timing post-inauguration, was actually a welcome reprieve).
  • And of course, lots of instant coffee (to fight the jet lag — it didn’t work, by the way) and long, long, long days from 7:30am till 9pm, finishing off with movies and documentaries for fun.

Towards the end of orientation, we got placed into our language group — isiZulu! And while the lodge we were staying at was lovely, we were ready to move on to the next step in the training process: PST!

Next up: Moving to the Training Village!