Part One: Arriving in South Africa

Dusk in Mpumalanga

Sanibonani, y’all!

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.

*****

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.

*****

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 airportĀ 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 isĀ 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!

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