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.
Last weekend we stormed the wildlife reserve that hosts our training sessions for an old-fashioned sleepover party. My neighbors and I kicked off the occasion by preferring our feet to the taxis (mini-buses) for the 3-mile commute.
One of my friends sparked an inspiring conversation with a simple question: Why are you here?
An army of goals and motivations sprang to my mind, but one answer tops the others: To equip myself for service. Peace Corps calls it “sustainable development”; in the church, we might say “servant leadership.” Either way, I love this program best for committing me long-term to living humbly and setting others’ needs before my own. Every day I catch my breath, wondering what the Lord will make of my time here.
Our conversation wandered to travels, college, and hobbies. One of my friends delighted me with an unexpected invitation: ‘Would you mind elaborating on why prayer is like exercise?’
Electrified at this opportunity, I poured forth my experiences with spiritual disciplines, citing Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “Life with God” by Richard J. Foster, and the Book of Common Prayer as it was introduced to me at the John Jay Fellowship. My friends were gracious listeners.
The walk refreshed me so much that I reversed immediately upon arrival and accompanied a different crew on a hike around the reserve.
Our fearless leader Marc did his best to scare up some critters for us, but they stubbornly absented themselves.
(In the typical manner of animals, a herd of wildebeest instead manifested several days later to block our ride to morning classes. We shrugged and snapped photos through the windshield.)
The wildlife reserve might properly deserve the name “resort,” since it also features a swimming pool and bathhouse. After a quick dip in chilly water, I locked myself in for my first long soak since departing Philadelphia.
After feasting on soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, we gathered that evening for an often hilariously impromptu talent show. With a makeshift bonfire periodically convulsing and spitting sparks, it made for the most dramatic venue in which I have ever declaimed my favorite epic, “The Queen’s Crowning” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
As she lay weeping at the nightShe heard but knockings three.‘It is as cold as death without:Open the door to me…’
For another round of nostalgia, a couple of talented guitar players graced us with “Wagon Wheel” upon request. The stars were bright; the fire burned low; we stumbled over the stanzas and laughed at ourselves. As with the makeshift s’mores, the thought overwhelmed me that life circles back to memories of distant days spent in different company at the most unexpected moments.
The next day a surprise awaited me at home: My host mother down sick with a cold! Umama claimed herself willing and able to cook our usual Sunday smorgasbord, but I convinced her to set me a final exam instead as the culmination of her training in the kitchen.
Cooking six different dishes on my first solo venture would have satisfied the most exacting schoolmaster. Then my little sisters volunteered to help: an exercise in kitchen management! Adding our neighbor’s daughters into the mix equaled a surprise section on conflict resolution. Finally, just to keep things interesting, the effort doubled as a real life language quiz: directing, managing, and exhorting, all in Zulu.
Sagging with mingled relief and exhaustion, I scraped the results together and turned them over to my host mother for inspection. She awarded me this distinction: “We will miss you when you are gone!”
Our actual language assessment (the dreaded “LPI”) is bearing down on us, due for this Thursday/Friday.
To raise our flagging spirits, our Program Managers have revealed that coveted prize that has plagued the thoughts of many a trainee, waking and sleeping: the identity of our permanent site placement!
It’s an occasion for great suspense: Not only do we learn exactly which classes we will teach for two years, but we were also granted a peek at our host families’ profiles and what type of structures will house us. Perhaps most importantly, we learned which of our friends will live in the same “cluster,” a grouping of rural sites centered around an urban shopping center where we can convene on weekends to commiserate and buy groceries.
Again, I had schooled myself to accept wherever the Lord sent me — with one primary concern: proximity to Christian community. The Lord answered all my hopes in placing me near the friends who have supported me most in prayer during this time. As for church, it will take place in my future host family’s living room! The Peace Corps forbids sharing location details on account of security concerns, so the most I can say geographically is that we are southeast of Swaziland, hugging the border with Mozambique — in short, a beautiful location.