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:
1. “Workshops” = training
The week before school, I joined my HOD and counterpart, Nonhlanhla, for a new Peace Corps training aimed at reducing harassment in our communities. It was a daring event, bringing together principals and volunteers to bridge our cultural differences over where to carve a line between harmless and unwelcome attention.
2. “2nd Goal” = culture swap
Holidays crown the list of chances to achieve Peace Corps’s second of three goals:
- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Whenever we share our home culture with South Africans, we ‘promote a better understanding of Americans’ – and rarely is there a better opportunity than on a day like the 4th of July.
Rather than fireworks or red-white-and-blue desserts, I celebrated by planning a GirlsTalk session and visiting the Youth Center.
It turned out to be a perfect opportunity for one of those precious moments when my friends and I learn something new about each other. “What do you do on the Fourth of July…besides fireworks, I mean?” Ayanda added quickly.
It didn’t take long before we realized the USA’s Independence Day has a beautiful parallel in South Africa’s Freedom Day: an annual celebration of South Africa’s integrated elections in 1994.
3. “Weekends Away” = visiting friends!
There is no such thing as after-hours for the Peace Corps Volunteer: We are on the clock 24/7! For travel away from site, we request annual leave…or avail ourselves of bimonthly “weekends away.”
Geographically, we mustn’t stray far from site…but the range of possible activities is wide and varied:
Another weekend, my dear friend Sydney hosted me at her new site. Unexpectedly frigid nights had me sleeping under my coat, but Sydney more than made up for it with her warm hospitality. She sent me home with an armful of avocados, knocked fresh from the branches in her backyard.
At church that weekend, the children presented an original play, in which God answered a shepherd’s prayer with a miraculous resurrection:
This was also my first opportunity to celebrate communion with my church family here! I recognized the slices of white bread and carton of grape juice from the aisle at the grocery store, but somehow that and the children’s circulating with plastic plates brought me to the Lord’s supper as Paul frames it in his letters: a family meal.
4. “Secondary Projects” = extra-curricular activities
My Head of Department commissioned me for an important duty: selecting the words for our schoolwide Spelling Bee. The Grade 4 English teacher and I labored over the 40 page document, rifling papers and chewing our pencils while we pondered whether our learners would have an easier time piecing together “lyric” or “quiver.”
South Africa’s Department of Education sponsors this event: Since it supports our goals as education volunteers but falls outside the bounds of teaching English in the classroom, Peace Corps designates this type of work a “secondary project.”
Secondary projects also encompass any activities we introduce of our own initiative at school. Monday to Friday, I chase the sun to school to open our Book Club at 7am.
I feel like Father Christmas when I arrive with a bag bulging with picture books, or like a stage magician when I produce one bright paperback after another. Otherwise, these beautiful volumes are safeguarded in a padlocked storeroom, secure from thieves and dust, but lamentably inaccessible for learners.
One afternoon finally granted me the chance to introduce a treasure chosen specially for my littlest bro: a touch-and-feel toddler book!
When Bathanda’s fingers felt the furry monkey tail, he burst out giggling with glee.
5. “Integration” = bonding with your local community
Integration, the omnipresent and ambiguous task of building relationships with our new neighbors, looms large in every volunteer’s service. There’s no knowing when an opportunity will present itself, or what form it will take.
It was in the early hours before our school’s sports match, spreading butter on a mountain of bread slices, that I scored my greatest victory to date in the art of integration: For the first time, I felt like a contributing member of the team with my teachers!
We were assembling an army of sandwiches, Zulu-style: Everyone seemed to know the drill, while I kept my eyes peeled for any tiny hint of what to do next (asking too many questions is frowned on). Relentless observation yielded the recipe for a picnic in northern KZN: butter on brown bread; a leaf of lettuce; three slices of tomato and cucumber, well-spiced; topped with cheese or “polony” (bologna) – pick one!
As we chopped cucumber and sliced tomatoes, with the melodic rhythm of Zulu flowing in and around us, I managed–not to make a joke, but to laugh at a joke someone else had made. A sense of gratitude and belonging washed over me. It really does take time and patience, just like the local private school’s principal Sylvia coached me when I first visited her back in October!
At my first sports match, the other team stampeded us – but this time, the netball players took advantage of a much fairer face-off: Our girls played hard! I was getting into it, cheering on a heavy-hitting girl from my Grade 5 class, rooting for a Grade 7 learner whose spirit and determination more than made up for her diminutive stature.
Meanwhile, on the soccer field, it struck me that our boys played “ngenyawo” – i.e. barefoot – while the other team sported cleats. Another spectator, the mother of one of my learners, shrugged when I voiced my surprise. They’re more comfortable that way, she said.
The event concluded with parceling out leftovers from the braai (barbecue): slabs of scrumptiously seasoned steak, wheels of salty corn meal, and stacks of stewed vegetables. I found myself wishing for a bigger take-home container, reflecting on how the Lord’s blessings overflow the space we allot for them. Like the widow with the jars of oil, my teachers piled on as much as my bowl could carry!