Quite a bit has happened in the past few weeks! We had a very nice host family appreciation day with dancing, singing, speeches, and lots of delicious food. I wore the traditional skirt that a local tailor made for me and a few others in my cohort, and my gogo was fashionable as ever! The following week was a blur of administrative and policy discussions. At the end, we had a beautiful function at the US Embassy Recreation Center where the SA35s swore in as Peace Corps Volunteers, officially graduating from PCTs (trainees) to PCVs!
After swearing in, we said some hard goodbyes to our host families. I gave my gogo a beautiful cross that I bought in America, my brother a headlamp, and photos for both. They loved them. I’m glad my training village isn’t far so that I can visit them again soon! The next day, we went to a nearby nature reserve and had a fun day to celebrate and say goodbye to our cohort and staff members. It was a great time, although sad to say goodbye to my constant companions for the past 10 weeks. Our cohort is split between Mpumulanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, and each had separate supervisor’s workshops. I gave out last-minute hugs and hopped on board the Mpumulanga bus towards Nelspruit. It was a long ride, but I was grateful that our bus didn’t break down like the KZN’s did! The hotel was gorgeous, with a lakeside view. It was great to see my supervisor again. I came back to site last Tuesday and had the week off for the Easter holidays, allowing me some time to settle in.
The first weeks have been full of the uncertainty and awkwardness characteristic of a big life change, but there have been wonderful moments as well. I am now living with a different host family and I have this great little house adjacent to the main house. It’s been fantastic to have some measure of independence and solitude to recharge my partial introvert batteries. My family comprises a gogo, two host brothers, and two host sisters. One of my sisters just had a beautiful baby boy, and I was able to be there when we picked them both up from the hospital. I was nervous when they asked me to hold him (I’d only held a baby once in my life, and that was here in South Africa), but it went fine. I haven’t seen him much since because the house is crazy in preparation for my brother’s wedding next weekend. Weddings in my village are treated much differently than in the U.S.; the wedding is open to the whole community, no invitations needed. The community also contributes to the wedding. Every day, there are between five to fifteen people here contributing labor (such as roofing and tiling) for free, helping to cook, or donating food and alcohol for the event. I thanked one of the men for his help, and he corrected me- it isn’t help, it’s “our [the community’s] wedding.” I really liked that perspective.
I also did a 5K fun run with my host brothers on Good Friday; my time was abysmal, but it was a good opportunity to meet community members! Afterward, I went to Good Friday mass with my family. Some of the local youth put on a great passion play, and then we went into the church. Mass ended up being 5 hours long and all in Setswana, which was challenging, but I really enjoyed the singing. It was a busy but exciting first weekend!
The past week was my first week at work. My organization is a drop-in center for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC), particularly those affected by and/or at high risk for HIV. One of our main activities is providing a meal a day for local OVCs. We have a garden, kitchen, library, and main office, and we share grounds with the local youth center. My first three months at site will be spent conducting a community needs assessment, so I’m at work three days a week right now and out in the community to talk to stakeholders and citizens the other two days. This period is largely about observation and relationship-building. However, I did get to help a young woman apply to college, which was a highlight of my week. I also worked with the cooks to help peel and prep food, talked with staff, and met people who came in to the office to copy documents or just to say hello. Thursday, I attended a meeting on a community sports project hosted by site mate’s organization. It was a great meeting, but it also ended up lasting nearly the whole day. Clearly, I need to up my endurance to keep up with my community members!
I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to settle in to my new home and community. I live in a village of Tswana people who primarily speak a combination of the Setswana and Sepedi languages. The area comprises three villages; the village where I live and work has several thousand people (estimates vary on the actual number). I’ve met at least a hundred people in the past two weeks and barely scratched the surface, but I’ve managed to make a few friends. I’ve also spent some time walking around the beautiful pond at the center of the village, which has a big, open green space around it that makes it look and feel like a park. Yesterday, I set up my P.O. box and checked a few books out of the library on HIV in South Africa and a kids’ book in Setswana to help me study. I’ve really enjoyed being able to cook for myself for the first time in three months, although my meals are far from gourmet! Additionally, I hung up some photos of friends and family using some clothespins and string (thanks Kathryn!). I feel as though I’ve begun the process of integration, but it’s going to take a lot of time, endurance and patience.
I’ve had several encounters recently that made me recognize and appreciate the incredible endurance of the South Africans I’ve met, including mass and the project meeting. People don’t complain, they dig in and keep giving here. The other day, my site mate and I were riding with her sister when the car got stuck in a ton of sand (not uncommon). We tried to get out and push the car but couldn’t fight the ocean of sand. While I was frustrated and annoyed, her sister was calm and unflustered. She called some friends to come with a rope, and they showed up laughing, singing, dancing instead of being laser- focused on the most efficient and fastest way to get the car out of the sand like I was. We ended up getting the car out, and I managed to relax and appreciate the situation. I think it’s an important lesson that I’ll continue to learn while I’m here- Peace Corps is a marathon, not a sprint, and South Africans have superior endurance.
I’ll end this rather long update with an awesome South African song, “Gobisiqolo” by Bhizer. I’m aiming to update weekly after this. Also, I just got my P.O. box, so if you want my address email me!