It hardly felt like Christmas, in this hot weather, but the end of the year did bring a different kind of festivities…
This summer, many friends committed to praying for Christian community to find me here in South Africa. If they hadn’t, I might never have realized how bountifully the Lord has answered those prayers.
My first week of school, when I was interviewing the teachers according to my Peace Corps integration assignment, the Foundation phase Head of Department suggested I contact the principal at a nearby private school. When I finally chided myself into making the call, she graciously invited me to visit.
That was where I met Petra. A native South African and world traveler, she has taught for years in schools as far flung as Europe, the Middle East, the United States, and rural KZN. This exceptional Christian lady has opened her heart and home to me, introducing me to my most exceptional experiences in South Africa to date.
People join the Peace Corps because they want to travel, they say. That was one of my motivations, definitely, but it seemed more possible before I arrived and learned about the remoteness of our site placements, the unpredictability of the taxi (mini-bus) schedules, and the expense of constantly relying on public transportation in lieu of personal vehicles.
It was starting to look like my traveling options, inside the country or out of it, would be limited to a couple weeks of vacation scattered around school holidays. Besides that, I imagined myself settling down in a rural mountain village, relying on local relationships and web browsing for entertainment.
Little did I realize how many amazing opportunities there are within a day’s ride from my front door!
It was one of my self-reflective revelations, about the time I graduated college, that not everybody enjoys cooking as much as I do. For some reason it had never occurred to me before that there were alternative perspectives on the subject.
Cooking has entertained and invigorated me for many a hour, many early mornings, and several late nights, since I first learned to mix a batch of brownies for my elementary school friends. This might come as a surprise to my community here in South Africa, since they are all more or less convinced that their young American guest is incapable of cooking or at least deathly afraid of it.
It’s true that I haven’t cooked as much as I imagined I would. In my defense, my facilities are limited. My kitchen consists of a desk squeezed in the corner of my apartment, sporting two burners and an electric kettle for my appliances, with a single pan and diminutive pot as my tools. That put a kabosh on my plans for showering family and friends with goodies, but I was determined that no oven did not have to mean no baked goods ever.
My hapless navigating generated some laughs when we were all together during training, but I confess it gave me a feeling of trepidation when I thought ahead to finding my way around site.
The Peace Corps answer to areas where Google Maps may be faulty or non-existent is a mandatory “community mapping” assignment. This key element of integration entails a hand-drawn map with local landmarks, but also an investigation of the intangible network of relationships that make up a community.
My second week at site, I armed myself with pencil and paper, ready to try my hand at surveying. Happily for me, my host brother answered the call–he and some friends allowed me to recruit them for a tour of my new village.
Two days after our swearing-in ceremony, it was time to say our final good-byes and load into our principals’ cars for the drive to our new homes. Along the way we stopped at a mall for household essentials – sheets, towels, pantry staples – doing our best to divine what we would need when we moved in sight unseen.
The day was waning by the time I presented myself to my new family. There was just time for a round of hello’s before I wrapped myself in my comfy new blanket and closed my eyes against the fears and doubts of what awaited me at school on Friday morning.
As it turned out, without the kindness of everyone at S. Primary School, I might not have made it through my first week, because on that very morning, the misfortune I had dreaded most befell me: losing my phone.
That’s the best way to sum up our training to become Peace Corps Volunteers, and the very same phrase applies to our week in Durban.
Durban: the beach-side city where we would take our oaths to uphold the U.S. Constitution and swear in as the 38th class of South Africa’s Peace Corps Volunteers. We had been anticipating this day since we arrived in South Africa, some of my fellow volunteers for years before that–but first we had to get there.
That included showering us with handbooks and booklets, packets and pamphlets: from safety and security, medical, community development, policies and procedures… Every time another stack circulated, grumbling would arise: ‘How are we going to carry all this to site?’ ‘I’m gonna have to hire a truck for my extra baggage.’
If you recall from my triumphant departure post, I had squished the sum of my possessions into two backpacks. I pride myself more than is merited on traveling with as few bags as possible–but this time, it wasn’t to be.
I cracked and bought a duffel bag. It was some consolation that a third piece of luggage would doubtless come in handy if I were to realize my visions of holiday hiking trips. Even better, the suitcase sufficed for piling in everything Pre-Serving Training had loaded us.
Everything? No, the stacks of books weighed little in comparison with the intangible gifts that came full circle in my final week at Bundu.
With teaching practicum and our language assessment behind us, I must confess to cherishing the misapprehension that the last two weeks would be leisurely in comparison. As you might guess from the lapse since I last wrote, that was not the case.
Since my final farewell with the learners in Bundu, I have slept in three different beds. A million moments have passed, with dozens of photos attending them, but this day deserves its own recognition: Family Appreciation Day at SS Skhosana.
I had hinted to my host mother that my future family in KZN, to say nothing of myself, might recall my time in Bundu even more fondly if we had some tangible token to treasure…baked goodies, for example.
She obliged by imparting to me a coveted recipe for “amakhekhe” – the Zulu word for cake, here applied to mouthwatering tea biscuits!
Though it seemed impossible when I was camped out in the airport terminal with my fellow trainees, staring down a three-month-long stretch, the bulk of Pre-Service Training (PST) is now behind us. We have sighted the finish line, and it is racing towards us instead of the other way around.
Determined not to go quietly into our impending separation as the Peace Corps deploys us throughout the KwaZulu-Natal province (KZN), we have already begun the serious business of loading our dwindling days together with celebrations and festivities.
“This place is burgeoning with life,” a friend marveled last week. “Chicks, kids, children… there are babies everywhere!”
A couple of weekends ago, we celebrated another year of life for one of our trainees with a backyard bonfire! Safety concerns after dark mandated that we burn our sticks during daylight hours, but we made the best of it by introducing the neighborhood kids to an all-important facet of American culture: s’mores.
Create a visual aid in 18 minutes.
Our instructor had wowed us with photographs of hand-painted murals, board games constructed from 100% recycled materials, and the classic erupting volcano experiment adapted for South African classrooms. Now it was our turn.
The booty? King-sized candy bars. Saddled with “circulatory system” as our topic, my team sprang into action.
Peace Corps brought our cohort to a rolling boil with a trip to Pretoria for a guided tour of the Voortrekker Museum. Trainees later debated whether we should invest our resources in experiencing a symbol of apartheid history and Afrikaner nationalism firsthand. Although the controversies left us divided in opinion, at the time we could all agree to revel in the fresh air, striking architecture, and startling heights.
On my way home from Kwamhlanga, I pondered how to describe my weekend away. My host mother had invited me there for a sojourn to her mother’s house. The town wasn’t far, but we would be staying overnight.
What was the occasion, exactly? “Church.”
I suspected there was more involved, since she had broached the subject weeks in advance and invested the days preceding in amassing buckets of handmade amakheki (sweet biscuits or ‘fat cakes’).
“What will we be doing?” I ventured, in my elementary Zulu.
Despite the apparent logic of these replies, I couldn’t quell the sense that something more awaited me.