The last weeks of my service in South Africa began like all the others: a kaleidoscope of culture, friendships, quiet, and difficult times. Then it started to get weird. A cascade of unrelated events contributed to a growing sense of chaos, which paradoxically prepared me for the end of my Peace Corps service in a way that I could never have anticipated.
In the end, as a friend pointed out to me, it was a mercy.
After my whirlwind visit home in February, life settled into what I imagined would be the routine for the remaining six or seven months of service. I spent weekends and afternoons in Ingwavuma, enjoying the hospitality of my dear friends there.
The ladies of the community gathered to celebrate another baby shower: for Anina, a Swiss German teacher and wife of a doctor at the local hospital. It was a beautiful event, reuniting friends who had left the area in December – and introducing me to a French-speaking family from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The next weekend I traveled with my school to a netball and football tournament at a rural school near Sodwana Bay. As we greeted the teachers there, a strange sense of familiarity stole over me. At last the realization dawned: We had hosted them for sports last year!
The revelation made me giggle, because at the time I was convinced that our guests hailed from “Botswana” (while wondering at what a distance that seemed to represent). Finally I discovered they truth: They reside in Mbazwana, the last town before the beach.
After a long and tiring day, I opted to read on the taxi while the students disappeared for a last grocery run. On their return, sugar, soda, and chips flowed freely around the seats. It was enough to make anyone peckish. Then, to my astonished gratitude, the students offered me some of their treats. Sharing food is tantamount to welcoming someone into the family in the local culture. I dug some peanuts out of my backpack, and we traded our tokens of affection while the taxi lurched home, rocking to Gqom and other Zulu music.
Late February found me on the road again, for a Resource Committee meeting in Pretoria. During my stay, I was blessed with the hospitality of Alabanza, a Christian mission and retreat center in the mountains surrounding the city. It happened to coincide with a visit by long-time supporters of the mission: Jenny and Jim, an American couple. They introduced me to Rook, a trick-taking card game that forged new friendships and enmities every night.
The founder, Dini Esterhuizen, who traveled the world as a missionary with the mother of my friend and mentor, Maryna. She counseled me to embrace the freedom of living for God and not bowing to expectations imposed by the world. I also met Anastasia, a Russian heiress who walked away from the family business to pursue God’s will for her life. Now she supports herself by crafting stained glass. She encouraged me to trust that the Lord would reveal his direction for my life in due time.
Official work for Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to see Jan and Astrid – our hosts on the way back home from Northern Cape during the 2018 holidays. We met at La Pentola, a gourmet restaurant tucked into a quiet part of the city.
Back at site, I conducted the first GirlsTalk session of the 2020 school year at Ekukhanyeni Children’s Home. A house mother I hadn’t met before threw her weight behind me as a I conducted a session on navigating the Bible’s table of contents. Afterwards, we baked a three-ingredient banana bread – wish I knew what became of it, but the electricity failed us! We prepped the pan and left it for the girls to pop in the oven.
The craziness of March began with a funeral for the induna, local chief. An older man, he was the victim of a shooting. If the teachers ever found out the circumstances, I never heard about it.
Then the strikes began. It had happened before: local protests in the nearby towns forcing road closures. Because the teachers at my school commute to work, they generally shut down classes for fear that they may be trapped on the wrong side of the major intersections, unable to return home.
The local Christian school continued business as usual, however. I gladly took advantage of the opportunity to spend my days volunteering there: making copies, replacing textbook covers, and running other odd jobs as requested.
Meanwhile there’s news everywhere of the pandemic, and reports of the first cases in South Africa. Khethani sets up mandatory hand washing stations. Everyone is wondering when it will start to impact our lives directly.
To add to the sense of chaos, a baby shower is postponed when the mother-to-be is admitted to the hospital! In a classic show of rural ingenuity, we reschedule for the following day and move the venue to the hospital grounds – where another teacher lives with her family.
I woke Friday morning to a message from Peace Corps Safety and Security: They would notify us by 11 am about the response plan in case the protest activity intensified. Here was the first mercy: The notice prompted me to spend the morning packing all my things in the one room where I lived, sorting everything into donations, expendable, nice-to-have, and irreplaceable.
I dug up a set of spare keys, figuring that if we were removed from our sites and never had the chance to return, I could ask my local friends to pick up a suitcase of anything I wouldn’t want to lose.
I whiled away another day volunteering at Khethani.
No word from Peace Corps. Feeling the relief of reprieve, I promised friends to watch their house in Ingwavuma for the weekend. The next day, I would be attending a training session for Sunday school teachers, so it would be convenient for me to sleep over in town.
That afternoon, as Khethani’s principal drops me off at the grocery store, my phone rings. It’s Peace Corps: They order all the Volunteers in my area to leave our sites and travel to the closest city.
I was aghast. Wouldn’t it be possible to stay in the quiet mountain community, instead of negotiating the blocked roads to reach an unfamiliar place? To my great relief, Peace Corps Safety & Security eventually agreed. They directed me to stay the weekend, but depart Monday morning instead. That gave me the opportunity to attend the training and church in my community, where I gave a provisional good-bye to some of my closest friends.
It was a crazy weekend, with dramatic news arriving every 12 hours: first, Peace Corps South Africa instituted an international travel ban. I phoned home with the news that I had to cancel my ticket for Thursday night. Then Saturday, Peace Corps South Africa invited all Volunteers to opt for going home early! I called again to say I might keep the plane ticket after all.
Sunday morning, I woke with a firm plan: pack my things, say farewell to my host family, ride to the lodge where Peace Corps had directed me to stay the night. Monday morning I would follow my well-worn taxi route to Pretoria for out-processing.
At the time, it was my settled conviction that I would be home in the USA for maybe a couple of weeks, long enough to visit family and friends before plunging back into life as a volunteer in South Africa – this time, with more flexibility and freedom to travel. In retrospect, the illusion of a brief disruption helped get me through the transition and the shock of departing my life of the past 21 months for the indefinite unknown.
I spent my last night in KZN at a picturesque waterside lodge, courtesy of Peace Corps – where I luxuriated in a hot bath and wifi-enabled phone calls. I phoned several friends with the news of my imminent departure…and plans for what has turned out to be a not-so-imminent return.
It boggles the mind to recall that I was chatting with Petra, my first friend and mentor at site, about visiting her for Easter. A few hours later, the President of South Africa announced that they would ban all travel from the United States and other affected countries, until further notice.
Monday morning, as I waited on-board a taxi to commence the long road to Pretoria, word arrived from Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C.: For the first time in Peace Corps history, all Volunteers worldwide would be evacuated.
Arriving a day early, I cashed in a Peace Corps contest prize by treating myself to a gourmet dinner at La Pentola, that classy restaurant in downtown Pretoria with the mouthwatering menu. The attentive waiter entertained me with expert recommendations and hearty support for my volunteer work in his country.
As soon as the other Volunteers manifested, Peace Corps staff began cramming a process usually spread out over three months into three days – quadrupled, as they processed all four active cohorts in South Africa simultaneously. We rushed through sessions on mental health, closing our South African bank accounts, enrolling in temporary health insurance, and peppering the Country Director with questions on when, if ever, we could resume volunteering.
By providential arrangement, my original tickets home qualified for my evacuation transport. After yes-i-will-no-i-won’t for the past five days, I alerted my family that I would be flying home with the exact same itinerary as booked a month previously.
My last morning in country, I dashed around Brooklyn Mall, guided by a pair of veteran Volunteers, checking off my list of family souvenirs. With the rand to dollar exchange rate crashing to all new lows, and our bank accounts set to convert immediately upon our departure, I experienced a price-blind shopping spree for the first time.
There were a few tense moments when I discovered that my connecting flight from Heathrow to Dulles had been canceled, but the agent rapidly found me an alternative with nearly the same itinerary.
My family had worried about staggering wait times at the airport, but our screening consisted of a few quick questions delivered by a row of professionals in blue smocks. No, I hadn’t had a fever or cough lately, so I was free to go.
Staying with my family at a quiet farm in central Virginia created the ideal self-quarantine scenario for my two weeks post-travel. Since my return, many kind friends have asked how I’m doing, how is quarantine, how am I feeling about the abrupt exit.
Besides long walks on the farm and quality time with family, how do I cope? By cooking!
I am above all grateful, for the many mercies that interceded to ease my departure with extra time to pack and say good-bye. Now, along with the rest of the world, I’m staying mostly indoors, wondering about the future…and waiting.