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…

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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.

*****

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!