Peace Corps has given me some of the happiest times of my life – and some of the most difficult. The past month unfolded along the same lines, running from birthday celebrations to a memorial service for a Grade 6 learner at my school. In the good times, in the difficult times, we need not fear…for the Lord walks with us.
While away in Western Cape, I was marveling about the blooming aloes at Talitha’s wedding venue, lamenting their beauty compared to the plain janes lining my host family’s property…only to discover, on my return, that the aloes at home are blooming, too!
After a cascade of often unexpected opportunities for travel this past year, it’s been my joy to discover the tiny treasures of spending time closer to home.
When a Peace Corps Volunteer isn’t soaking in the sights and sounds of her adopted country, how does she occupy her time? What are you supposed to do at site, anyway?
For decoding the nitty gritty of the volunteer experience, please consult this cheat sheet of five daily doings in Peace Corps South Africa:
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The weekend after schools closed, I joined a local Christian ministry for hosting a short-term mission, or “outreach” team. Our guests, fifteen young men from Pretoria, made even the typical Peace Corps accommodations look glamorous: They pitched tents on the hillside in front of the Youth Center, with nothing but the spigots on jojos (massive rain water barrels) for showers.
Introducing them to the wonderful world of my local community brought back memories of my early days here, when I was still puzzling out and goggling at the mind-blowing ministry and development work unfolding around every corner.
It felt strange to be a veteran in comparison.
When I pondered the question, a single word bubbled up: experience. “Experience” spans the range of my motives, from personal delight in experiencing a new continent for the sixth time, to professional goals of gaining experience in working overseas.
Above either of those aims, I also desired “experience” in the sense of gaining maturity and wisdom.
“Though it cost all you have, get wisdom…”
So far, Peace Corps South Africa has delivered on all three aspirations. This past month, my lesson in wisdom has taught me to hope during dark and doubtful times.
A friend told me that sleeping cleans and heals our brains, like brushing the plaque from our teeth. That’s how church felt my first Sunday back from visiting the USA: brushing the plaque from my soul.
Peace and a sense of belonging enveloped me like a perfume; I greeted every friend with joy, conscious of how blessed I am to know them. Every week, it seems that a new connection unfolds, weaving me more and more into the fabric of community life in KZN.
The first term of school has ended; the second began three weeks ago. It is almost autumn in South Africa. Another mile-marker: As of April 5th, one third of my Peace Corps commitment has elapsed.
March blurred by with my first end-of-term exams bearing down. Meanwhile my head was muddled with packing for back-to-back trips: first, training in Durban, then two weeks at home in the USA.
The time away gave me a much-needed chance to reconnect with God and reflect on my reasons for service.
It persuaded me that, no matter the troubles and challenges I face here, I am committed to finding a way to glorify God through my service in South Africa.
School has started, and I’m teaching English and Creative Arts to 140 students! It is an overwhelming task–the first two weeks, I don’t think I would have made it out the door without praying for God’s strength and support.
As I struggled to create a classroom environment of discipline and positive reinforcement, the Lord blessed me with an outpouring and kindness and hospitality from the surrounding community. Their generosity gave me the strength to push through the hard days until my efforts at teaching with a counterpart began to bear fruit.
What is it like to celebrate Christmas in the summer? For me, it was a multi-day road trip, absorbing South Africa’s rich history and wildly varying climate, then nesting for the holidays at a family farm in Augrabies, Northern Cape.
My dear friend Petra captained the tour, guiding us from one serendipitous experience to the next, until we landed at a home deserving of that Biblical ode: “a land flowing with milk and honey…”
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.