Needs Workshop

This past week really brought me back to one of the main reasons I wanted to do Peace Corps: to connect the people I work with to the resources that I have access to.  I worked with the local NPO forum to convene the NPOs and creches (semi-equivalent to a daycare/preschool hybrid) for a discussion and prioritization of needs. 

I was pretty nervous leading up to the workshop– what if no one shows up? what if the exercises don’t make sense?– but in the end, it went very well!  17 people showed up representing 8 different NPOs and creches.  The exercise of determining the top three needs and reframing some of them as issues the forum could actually help with (e.g. needing a new/renovated building being changed to grant-writing training) was challenging but rewarding.  In the end, the groups decided on grant writing training, project management training, and first aid training & kits as the top three challenges for the forum to address.  Now, the forum and I are working hard to transform the workshop results into a grant application by the end of this week.

The workshop was especially rewarding because it gave our NPOs and creches the chance to not only voice their struggles, but to recognize that many of them share similar challenges.  The forum demonstrated powerfully on our joint Mandela Day event that by working together, we can achieve so much more than working alone.  I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to use this spirit of ubuntu to work with the NPO forum in helping our NPOs and creches.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of the workshop yet, but I hope to have some for next week!

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Shekhinah

My latest SA musical obsession is Shekhinah, an extraordinarily talented 23-year-old R&B singer-songwriter from Durban.  She premiered on two seasons of SA Idols while still in high school and has continued her career in Joburg, releasing her first album Rose Gold this year and collaborating with internationally famous SA EDM DJs like Black Coffee and Sketchy Bongo.  I first fell in love with her luscious, sultry voice when I heard “Let You Know,” and my love and admiration has only grown since then.  Her music videos are also great works of art, featuring great street art and moments of daily life in SA cities.  Below are a few of my current favorite songs/videos!

Salute Your (Soccer) Shorts ⚽️

This past week, I went with YASPO to a nearby village, and Gwen (another PCV) and I supported them in implementing a Grassroot Soccer (GRS) camp—think less Camp Anawanna and more HIV-focused day camp. We worked with about 60 high school students from Monday to Friday, teaching them about HIV kinesthetically and incorporating several lessons on contraceptives, substance abuse, and STIs from the Zazi and Brothers for Life curricula. I really enjoyed being able to have frank discussions with the students, who were much more engaged than I expected!

I was really grateful to have a team of trained YASPO coaches leading the sessions. YASPO has been conducting GRS, Zazi and Brothers for Life groups and camps for several years now, and their expertise really shows in the success of the camp. I relied on them to lead, and my role was to jump in when different questions arose or to talk about how these issues compare in America. For example, the learners were surprised to hear that gender-based violence is a serious problem in America also.

The best part of the camp by far was the graduation on Friday, when the learners performed different speeches, dramas, and raps to demonstrate what they had learned. One youth rapped to Ludacris’s “Runaway Love,” highlighting the parallel themes (teen pregnancy, unprotected sex, etc.) in the song and what we had learned. Another group did a drama that reinforced respecting that “no means no,” something we were very adamant about with our learners. It filled me with hope and joy to see our students taking what they had learned and running with it. I’m so grateful that I got to be part of this incredible camp and learn from YASPO! I’m also very grateful to Gwen for sharing her couch, food, company, and wisdom for the week, and for Jonas, who helped out the last two days.
(Photos credit Gwen)


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On a side note of gratitude, a big thanks to Joni, who sent me this incredible care package to share with my kids! (other than the Twizzlers, which I ate in one sitting 😀 )

Sports Sports Sports!

For the past month, I’ve been supporting the local youth sports organization, YASPO, and their annual YASPO Cup. This event brings primary and secondary schools together to compete in soccer (football), netball, and volleyball.  Netball is similar to basketball, but the ball doesn’t touch the ground.  Once a player has the ball, she can only take one step and can only hold on to the ball for 3 seconds.  (Learn more here)

The YASPO Cup is important because there are few recreational outlets for youth outside of school. This past Thursday was the final competition for each category. It was an exciting day for staff and learners! 
My role was photographer, despite my utter lack of photography skills and the fact that my camera is a decade old. I definitely think my action shots improved over the course of the events though, and I was glad to support YASPO!  I’ve included some of the top photos from this year’s Cup below:

Staying Engaged While Overseas

I’m going to let my public adminstration side show here for a moment to talk about an important topic: staying engaged and making our voices heard while overseas. I know many PCVs who have expressed opinions on legislation such as the Graham-Cassidy bill, but who are unable to call their senators and representatives because of time zone differences and prohibitive phone costs.

It is still important for us to stay engaged, and you can through different apps: Countable allows you to keep up-to-date on new legislation and electronically “vote” on your opinion, which is sent to your representatives, and Stance enables you to leave voicemails for your representatives over the internet. I have used both of them to voice my opinion on critical legislation, and they are free and easy to use. These apps are the ones that I know about, but there are many more. 

So please use these and other means to share your thoughts with your representatives.  It’s really, really important (and thanks to these apps, fast and easy)!  But if you’re a PCV, please remember not to represent yourself as a PCV or on behalf of the Peace Corps.  Big thanks to Monday Bazaar for sharing this very important information and for an excellent post on how to call your representatives!

Do you have any other ways to stay involved or tips? Share them in the comments!

Honoring Heritage

Happy Heritage Day! This South African public holiday celebrates the many diverse cultures, traditions and beliefs in the country. The secondary school in my village hosted a celebration and invited me to give a presentation on HIV as part of the event.
Totally panicked, I asked for help from some of my coworkers at my organization (LCCS) and the youth sports organization (YASPO). I wanted to be sure the learners understood us, so my counterparts led the session in Setswana. It was a lot of pressure to put on them, but thankfully they rose to the occasion. I was really excited to see how they stepped up to the challenge!

Counterparts from LCCS & YASPO leading the HIV session

We used a modified version of the Fact or Nonsense game from Grassroot Soccer. Learners (students) would listen to a statement about HIV, such as “You can only get HIV from blood-to-blood contact,” then put their hands on their head if they agreed and their hands on their hips if they disagreed. It was a bit challenging in the large hall, but generally we managed to pull it off. We wrapped up with me talking for a few minutes on the importance of exercises and leading everyone in some basic stretches. 

Learners taking a stand on statements about HIV

Then we were treated to some really incredible performances. Two students did spoken word performances, including a very moving piece on domestic violence. Other learners performed traditional songs and dances. There was even a 30 minute play about HIV that was so good, it felt like I was watching a South African soapie. The learners were really excited when their teachers performed an amazing choreographed routine. It was an amazing celebration of pride and love for the Setwana culture and South Africa, and it was an incredible first Heritage Day for me.

A very talented learner doing a powerful spoken word performance on domestic abuse

Amazing traditional dancing by learners!


Another learner reciting an original poem on pride in her culture and nation


Do you have different stories about experiences of Heritage Day or other holidays celebrating culture? Share them in the comments!

Committee Camaraderie

Peace Corps South Africa has four different committees that volunteers can apply to serve on: Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC), Peer Support Alliance (PSA), Diversity, and Resource (RC).  Generally, two to three volunteers are selected from each cohort based on either an application or election process.  PSA works to provide mental and emotional support to other PCVs, reaching out regularly and providing sessions on self-care.  The Diversity Committee aims to foster inclusion and support of all cultures and identities in PCSA through training sessions, creation of safe spaces, and celebrations of diversity.  VAC serves as the PCV-staff liaison, representing cohorts with senior PC staff in discussions on important policies and procedures.  Finally, the RC is responsible for collecting and disseminating critical resources to PCVs, curating the monthly newsletter, and maintaining the shared space for PCVs at headquarters.  Committees are an important part of Peace Corps; each country has its own committees, although they usually cover similar topics.

The moment I heard about RC, I was practically jumping out of my seat to join.  I love resources, and I’m passionate about connecting people with the human and technical resources to achieve their dreams.  I applied within two days of the application being sent, and I finally heard the good news at IST: I was accepted!  I had already begun to collect a variety of toolkits related to HIV, working with orphans and vulnerable children (OVC), and math tutoring that had been very useful.

This past Sunday, I attended my first RC meeting and got to meet my committee mates.  We worked at breakneck speed for two days to seriously revamp the flash drive—eliminating outdated documents, adding a tremendous amount of new resources, reorganizing folders, increasing our exercise and podcast offerings (very critical to supporting PCVs’ mental health, trust me), and copying these in an intense assembly line onto 40 flash drives.  Today, we were able to present these ridiculously amazing flash drives to the newest cohort, SA36, who will swear in as volunteers on Friday.  It is our hope that these resources will support them as they begin their journey as English teachers in Limpopo.  As a bonus, I also had a chance to meet the new SA36 volunteer who went to Hiram College, my tiny undergrad!

Is it incredibly nerdy that I’m so passionate about resources?  Absolutely.  But I’m so glad that I’ve found a group of people who are equally committed to ensuring that we do all we can to provide tools for other PCVs.  The knowledge of individual PCVs is astounding, and being able to pool that to aid future PCVs will aid us all in helping our schools and communities.  I’m also very grateful for the other committees, and a big congratulations to my cohort mates who were selected to serve on them!

Are you a PCV who is currently serving or previously served on a committee?  What was your experience?

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I also wanted to thank everyone who responded positively to my last post.  It was very validating to hear how much Romanticizing Peace Corps resonated with others!  Finally, I want to put a quick shout-out to two of my very dear friends, Rachel and Ron, who were married this past weekend 🙂

Romanticizing Peace Corps

The life of a Peace Corps Volunteer is often very much romanticized, especially by Peace Corps itself. I know that I cast it as such in my mind. I imagined myself undergoing an ascetic journey, culminating in a movie-worthy moment of being completely broken and then healing into someone better and stronger. I thought I would unplug from technology and discover how much better life is without all that noise. I was going to undergo a transcendental experience of daily personal growth, finally leaving behind the stresses that plagued me in America and learning how to live in the moment.

The reality is rather different. For a week, I tried to get up and do yoga for 10 minutes in the morning, but it was cold and I hate mornings, so I quit. I may have plenty of free time, but rather than use it to exercise, garden, learn my language, or develop a new skill, I mostly sit around reading or watching whatever’s on my hard drive. Most days, it feels as though my energy has been thoroughly drained despite not actually doing much.

How I spend a lot of my downtime

I still get stressed about relatively minor things, although the circumstances differ. I haven’t developed crazy survivalist skills that will serve me in the impending zombiepocalypse. I have done a better job of unplugging, but I hoard and then splurge my limited data on the same sites I used to spend too much time on—Facebook, Youtube, Wikipedia, etc. I don’t eat super healthy, organic food or spend much time appreciating the natural beauty around me. Some of my biggest challenges have been unexpected, like the ordeal of pre-service training or interpersonal issues. I don’t get that one moment of culminating brokenness where I toss my proverbial hiking boot over the side of a canyon in PCSA.

So I’m learning to live without these romantic notions of what my Peace Corps journey will be, while also acknowledging that some of these elements are within my control. Two weeks ago, I started up a workout routine again, set aside some scheduled time during the week to focus on language learning and my literature review for my MI paper, and began a (short) meditation practice. It’s been rocky; some days I still come home and choose to blow these things off, but I’m learning to give myself some grace and adjust my expectations. Personal growth is not a linear path.

While trying to help with gardening today, I encountered our neighbor’s peacock, which is not an uncommon occurrence

My PC experience is certainly changing me, but in far more subtle ways than I expected. I am learning how to redefine my self-worth without being able to rely on my productivity and efficiency, but it’s slow. Who knows? Maybe once I return to America, I’ll forget many of the lessons I learned here. But if I can remember even just a few things—like the unconditional warmth of my host family when I interact with strangers, or learning to be more comfortable with not always knowing what’s happening around me— that’s still growth. It’s not the romantic version, but it’s real.

Mandela Day

Please excuse this long-overdue post about Mandela Day (July 18)! With all of the traveling and catching up, I finally made time this week to sit down and write about the amazing event our community held honoring Nelson Mandela.

Recently, two dedicated community members, Pitso and Sophy, formed an NPO forum for our ward. They want to help the NPOs work together and access greater opportunities. The NPOs in my area work very hard for very little compensation and often cannot put on large-scale events due to the low funding they receive. The forum helped them band together and create a very memorable day celebrating the birthday of world-renowned leader, Nelson Mandela. The event was fully funded through the forum members’ efforts to get donations from local small businesses.

Pitso and Sophy celebrating a successful Mandela Day


July 18 dawned bright and early, and those of us from the participating NPOs were busy at work peeling, chopping, cooking, and setting up for the event. My duties were to help with cooking and to be the official photographer (despite my total lack of camera skills). We hoped to have about 100 people or so. Throughout the day, we passed out food parcels and blanket donations to families in need, and several youth from the community performed tributes to Mandela through poetry, dancing, and rapping. One local group performed some musical selections from the very popular musical Sarafina. By the end of the day, we had over 250 people, and the chief for our area even came!

Local youth putting on some great selections from Sarafina

Passing out blanket donations!


It was a joyous celebration. These are the kinds of days that I live for as a PCV—seeing my community come together and do so much with so little. I can’t wait for next year’s Mandela Day!

The awesome ladies behind the event

Mma’s Famous Carrot Cake

Mma & Khutso making Mma’s famous carrot cake 😋

This week, I’ll share with you my gogo’s amazing carrot cake recipe.  Be prepared for glory!

Ingredients

Cake

  • 2.5 cups flour
  • 1.25 cups sugar
  • 1.25 cups oil
  • 3 cups finely grated carrots
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • .5 cup chopped pecans
  • .75 tsp salt

Icing (optional)

  • 125g butter
  • 125g cream cheese
  • 500g (or 1 packet) icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Directions

Cake

  1. Preheat oven to 180 C or 350 F.
  2. Beat eggs & sugar together until well blended.
  3. Add oil, then beat again until blended.
  4. Sift dry ingredients (except nuts) and add to the mixture.
  5. Fold in carrots and nuts.
  6. Grease and flour two 9 in. square or round baking pans. Divide mixture evenly.
  7. Cook for 40 minutes.

Icing (optional)

  1. While the cakes are in the oven, cream the butter and icing together until stiff.
  2. Stir in cream cheese and vanilla.  Do not stir too vigorously or it will become runny.
  3. Coat the top of both cakes with icing.  Then stack them.
  4. Eat & enjoy!

I hope you all enjoyed this installment of Cooking with Gogos.  In other news, a big thank you to Amber and to my Aunt Karen & Uncle Tom for their amazing care packages!  Also, my host brother adopted an adorable puppy named Ranger who loves biting things, long walks on the beachless sand, and belly rubs.

Happy National Dog Day, Ranger! 🐶


Care package love!