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.
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).
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.
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!”
– 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.
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).
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
– 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.
– 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.
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.
Sundays were good days for little…escapes.
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.
Also found a good place to get a haircut:
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.
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!
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.
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!
Not long after Family Appreciation Day, PST wrapped up! We survived!!!
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!