A year late, call it African Time

Where to begin? I’ve wanted to start a blog during my service but have been too distracted (or lazy) to actually start. But here I go, better late than never right?

My name is Marie, and I’m currently serving as an Education Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa. I can’t get too specific about my location, but it’s not in Cape Town or Johannesburg or next to a World Cup stadium. Despite what you may have heard, there are regions that are very poor in South Africa, still slowly recovering from the devastating effects of apartheid.

I landed in South Africa July 8, 2011, and it’s still a hazy blur. We were whisked to an old college campus (what we lovingly call “summer camp”) to get acquainted before we went to our training site. That first night, we met our Language and Culture Facilitators, or “LCFs,” South Africans who would stay with us during our training to teach us about the culture and the languages. They began singing beautiful African hymns that blew me away and gave me goosebumps. We PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) have tried to replicate those songs, but I don’t think we can ever do them justice. At summer camp, were fantastic meals, decent showers, and of course, baboons. (Just one example of the first world-third world clash so common in South Africa.)

After summer camp, we were taken to our training site. We were all placed with host families, and I’ll never forget the reaction from my host mother when we were introduced. She gave me a huge hug and kept screaming “Amen! Amen!” Then she showed off to other host families that she got a small cute one.

During training, or PST (Pre-Service Training), we had lessons on culture, teaching, and language. I learned to speak Setswana, one of the eleven national languages of South Africa. (yes, ELEVEN.) I still struggle with it but have definitely shown improvement.

My host family consisted of a mother, father, and two sisters. (Actually three sisters, but only two still lived at home.) One sister, Tshegofatso, was finishing up Grade 12 and is currently in college. She is extremely intelligent, and very helpful during my adjustment period. The other sister, Tshenolo, was in second grade and was my little friend. Her English for a second grader was incredible, but she also helped me practice Setswana as well. Tshegofatso means “Blessings” and Tshenolo means “Revelation,” but I’ll get more into South African names later.

Their house was nothing like the image I had created in my head. It was big and beautiful, and my room and my bed were the most spacious I’ve had in my life. PST is sometimes called the hardest part of your service, but despite constant information overload, I really didn’t mind it. The friends I made during training are still my closest friends today, and they’re the main reason I got through it so easily.

It’s amazing how easy it is to form a routine and a bubble, even when you’re in Africa. When we all visited our permanent sites for the first time, that bubble POPPED. It finally clicked that we would go from being together every day to being on our own, and while that’s the reason we came here, it was still daunting (and plain terrifying).

My site visit was a blur. I do remember being told it was a shame I was so young; that stung a lot. My new host family was nothing but welcoming though, and some PCVs may fight me on this but I know I have the best family in South Africa. They are supportive, generous, and just fun to be around. I stay with a host mother and father and three sisters. They three girls are smart and caring and I am so blessed to be the “first born.” They are all currently either at work or school, so usually it is just my host parents and I. My host dad does not speak much English, which has been my main motivation for getting better at Setswana. My host mother and host sisters speak fantastic English, and always help me when I stumble through sentences. My host mother is Xhosa (as is Nelson Mandela), a different tribe from Setswana, and she told me that in Xhosa, “Zisa” means “help.” I could have interpreted this as a variety of signs: I would be a lot of help in my community, I would need a lot of help from my community, or I would need mental help after two years. Fingers crossed against the latter.

I suppose a common theme so far of my Peace Corps service is family. The one at home I miss terribly, the one who got me through training, and the one I stay with now whom I could not do this without.

From September to December, we had “Phase 2” of our service. This was our time to adjust, and see what needs the community had and where we could help. Then, in December, we had In-Service Training, (IST), where we could seek advice and be reunited with all the volunteers from our group. We were also supposed to bring a counterpart, who would assist us at our school. I chose the Grade 3 teacher, who has really supported me during my time here. The first time I met her, she told me I would be “the light that guides our ship home” and “the wind that flies our kite.” Talk about high expectations.

After IST, I made it to Cape Town! I went skydiving, had too much espresso, and ate guacamole until my heart was content. It’s shocking that Cape Town is in the same country as my village; the contrast between the two is staggering.

I was assigned two schools at my site. One is about a ten minute walk from my home; the other was about an hour. That walk was beautiful, and even though I never took the same route twice and at one point thought I was lost in the bush for good, I miss it from time to time. The school an hour away actually merged with my closer one, since it only had 40 learners. It worked out for the best though, because now I can give all my energy to the one primary school. The other school had only a principal and a teacher, but they now work at my main school so I’m glad I can still work with them. My principal has been so supportive, and gives me a lot of freedom which I really appreciate.

The school year is divided into four terms, and we are currently at the end of the second term. At the end of each term, we get about a two week break. After my first successful term as a teacher, my friends and I went to Blyde River Canyon. I’ll post pictures if I figure out how, but do yourself a favor and Google it. We went hiking and canyoneering; it was the most active vacation of my life, but also one of the most fun. It all led up to the Longtom Marathon, which is 56 grueling kilometers up and down a mountain. A couple of us did the half, and I think I ran a total of ten minutes, and walked and laughed the rest of the way. It was a great time, and I did not hate the free massage they were giving after.

During Term 2, I have been teaching Grade 6 English, Grade 7 Mathematics, Grade 4-7 computers, and computers to adults in the community. This term I was also able to start a Girls Club and an HIV program, which I’ll get into more detail later. I’m also desperately trying to get a school garden up and running, here’s hoping it gets into full swing next term.

This was just a brief catch up and introduction, and I’ll get into more details and more stories later on. But there’s only so much one can read (and I can type) at once. Stay tuned, now that I’ve got this running I’ve got no excuses!

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1 Comment

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One response to “A year late, call it African Time

  1. Jim frost

    Wow. What an awesome experience. I can’t wait to see you and meet your host family

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