Monday, September 14, 2009

Site Visits and How Showers Can Sometimes Make You Feel Human Again

I honestly don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with the fact that I should be studying for my language exam right now, but I’d much rather be talking to you.

It’s hard to describe a week packed with so many events, people, triumphs and struggles that it easily felt like a month. I guess I can start with a good ol’ timeline.

August 28-Everyone is given a small sheet of paper that states their village and the schools and supervisors which they would be working with, along with a mini-description of their host families. Our slip told us we would be living in a small village in the Northern Cape working in a well-resourced secondary school that had a computer lab with 40 computers and a primary school. Our host family would be grandparents living with their 17 year-old host granddaughter.

There were tears of terror and shouts of excitement from others in the group. I would say we were pretty neutral. The pros were that our site would be well resourced and one of our good couple friends would be relatively close. The cons would be that we were an hour and a half from our shopping town and we were definitely on the remote side of life.

August 29-We had a fieldtrip to Pretoria to the Voortrekker Monument followed by another visit to a mall which was as disorienting as the first. The highlight was definitely this restaurant, Spur, which is an “American” themed place that centers around Native Americans in a very bizarre/enforcing stereotypes kind of way. We got nachos that contained cottage cheese. Weird.

August 31-We drive the 8 hours from our training site to Kuruman where we will be staying for the “Supervisor’s Workshop”. They put us up at this very nice lodge with AMAZING food (I had a lamb chop there that changed my life and made me believe that some meat can be substituted for dessert), air conditioning, and hot showers. In fact, the first thing I did when we arrived was get in the shower for 45 minutes to try to feel clean again. It suddenly dawned on me that not being able to keep one’s idea of “basic” hygiene can start to severely impact one’s mental status and ability to feel human. I left that shower reborn.

September 1 to 2-Supervisor’s Workshop. We meet our two principals who are fantastic, motivated people who are eager to work with us and tell us what they think their schools and the communities are lacking. No first meeting is free of awkwardness, but I think we all did pretty well.

The 18 of us in the group who are stationed in the Northern Cape definitely bonded during this time. We are the few, the proud, the out-of-their-mind Peace Corps volunteers facing two years of life on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

And let’s talk desert. On the afternoon of the 2nd, a fellow volunteer along with Andy and I and three other South Africans, load up into a pickup truck meant for five. It was an interesting hour and a half drive through what they described as the “semi-desert” and what I would describe as the freakin’ desert. There are trees, I’ll give them that, but there’s also an awful lot of sand…

That evening we meant our new host family and got a preview of the space we will be living in for the next two years. Our area was currently under construction, so we stayed in a nicely prepared guest room. The situation was very similar to what we had at our training homestay: electricity, no running water, and outhouse. However, the new addition that is going to contain the two rooms that we will be living in SUPPOSEDLY is going to contain a bathroom with a flush toilet and shower. I am trying hard to manage my expectations here since when we left there were only cement brick walls with broken windows and no floor or roof. I am definitely interested to see how it all turns out!

Our family was very nice. Our grandparents have ten surviving adult children who live all over South Africa. Several of them came home for an important funeral in the village and so we were fortunate enough to meet them. The highlight though was the 17 year-old granddaughter who will be our host sister. She speaks fluent English, has a great sense of humor, and patiently helped us cook, find things, translate, and learn Setswana. She will be one of our greatest assets in the village. Plus she wants to be my jogging buddy. What else could I ask for!?

September 3 to 6-Site Visit. We tour our schools and meet the teachers and students. We see the awesome computer lab with the 40 computers (not all of them in working condition, though a few of them are connected to the internet!). In addition, we found the internet café across the street from our house (yay!). We went to our first South African funeral which was an experience. All in all, it was a very good experience and we’re very excited to be living there for two years.

Interesting items:

-The village we are living in is really the equivalent of an African reservation. The people who live there were forced to move by the Apartheid government in 1977 from their lush village where they farmed cattle to the edge of the desert. Many of the community members mentioned this to us when we spoke with them including the exact date. You can tell it’s an important part of the community’s identity. However, despite the fact that no one in the village is “from” there, they seem to have a strong spirit to make their village a better place. For example, to get to my village you need to drive 45 minutes on a gravel road, but once you arrive, they have paved their own main roads.

-In Setswana culture, the younger females/wives are expected to cook for the family. Therefore, since we’re not considered guests, but family, we have been consistently asked/expected to cook for everyone. It has led to some interesting/stressful moments. It’s hard to convey that though I may have had the ingredients used for most South African food available to me in the U.S., I have not had to prepare them without running water or a stove or in South African style.

-There have been groups of German and Australian volunteers in addition to another Peace Corps volunteer that have been in and out of our village. The good is that they brought supplies and workers to remodel the primary school, the funds and supplies to build the computer lab and a library for the secondary school, teachers to work with the South African teachers, and the supplies and knowledge to start a garden. The bad is that I think they are hoping for the same kind of miraculous progress from us. I guess it gives us something to strive for!

September 7- Our Northern Cape group got together and hired a couple taxis to take us back to our training site. We were so happy to see each other and discuss all the craziness from the previous five days. And now we’re back at the training college. We officially become volunteers on the 17th and then it’s off to our permanent site to live for two years! Let us know what you’re up to.

Love and miss you.

PS-I didn't get to post this until today and, no worries, I passed my language exam. You're now reading the blog of an Intermediate-Mid Setswana speaker.

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