Youth Day Celebration

Every year on June 16, South Africa celebrates Youth Day. This particular holiday has a very interesting and special place in South Africa’s history. One of the first apartheid acts of the Nationalist Party was to segregate the populations, creating small slices of “homelands” where black South Africans were mandated to live unless they obtained a special work permit. This paved the way for the “Bantu” education system in 1953, which formalized the marginalization of black South Africans’ education. [Bantu is derived from an isiZulu word and was used by the apartheid government in reference to native
South Africans] Another policy made it so that Bantu schools were paid for only through tax revenue from black South Africans, which inherently underfunded the system due to apartheid’s heavy work restrictions on black South Africans. A later act banned black South Africans from attending white South African universities and set up segregated universities, and other policies mandated separate primary and secondary schools for colored and Indian children. The Bantu Education Department’s curriculum was intentionally inferior, based on H.F. Verwoerd’s philosophy that “natives [blacks] must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans [whites] is not for them.” Verwoerd was one of the architects of apartheid.

Students and educators alike protested throughout the implementation of these racist policies. This movement gained momentum with the rise of the black consciousness and anti-apartheid movements across the nation, igniting hunger strikes and students stopping lessons in the late 1960s. Then, in 1975, the Bantu Education Department decreed that classes would use Afrikaans and English equally. On top of the inadequate education, shortage of teachers, crumbling infrastructure, and overfull classrooms that had been relegated to black South African youth, this mandate was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back—Afrikaans was strongly associated with the language of the oppressive apartheid government. One of the first areas to respond to this decree was Soweto, an informal settlement outside of Johannesburg of black South Africans.

Students in Soweto march to protest the inferior Bantu education system [Photo credit: South African
History Online]

The Action Committee of the Soweto Students Representative Council planned a march for June 16, 1976 in peaceful protest. After an initial standoff with the police, the students kept marching until they reached Orlando High School. A policeman threw a teargas canister, and then another officer shot into the crowd. In the resulting chaos, between 20 and 200 marchers were killed and many more injured. Protests erupted across the country, and one slain youth—Hector Pietersson—became a symbol of the injustice of the apartheid government that led to the June 16 uprising and slaughter. The apartheid government made some attempts at small reforms to the education system subsequently, but it was far too little. South Africa observes Youth Day annually on June 16 to commemorate not only those youth who peacefully protested for their right to an education, but also for the contributions of youth throughout South Africa’s history. [Source: South African History Online]

On Saturday, I was able to help out with a Youth Day event hosted by one of our partner organizations. One of the most serious challenges facing youth today in South Africa is HIV and AIDS. In my district, the leading cause of death from 2009 to 2014 for youth aged 15 to 24 was opportunistic infections resulting from HIV. [Source: District Health Barometer 2015-16] The Conquers Cup brings together groups of secondary school students from the area to compete in sports, community service, and awareness raising around HIV/AIDS. The day began with distributing condoms door-to-door to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around talking about HIV and AIDS. My district has one of the lowest rates of condom distribution, so this was a key intervention (although I unfortunately had to miss this part). Next, all of the students gathered at the local secondary school. There were several motivational speakers, including a few who are currently living with HIV.

A motivational speaker who came all the way from KwaZulu Natal

I was one of the judges for the competition, which was a first for me. First, each of the three groups put on a short parade to demonstrate team pride and show their knowledge of HIV. The next segment was presenting their community service activities; one group did an awareness raising session on STDs at a local clinic. The final segment was my favorite—each team put on some form of entertainment, which wasn’t judged. The first two teams did short plays on lebolla (similar to a dowry, constitutes a traditional wedding) and one on going to the sangoma (traditional healer). The winning team did a well- coordinated series of traditional songs and dances. We also had some local rappers and a dance team come to provide entertainment for everyone!

One of the teams presenting their information on STDs

Short play about going to see the sangoma

Winning team’s traditional dance

At the end, the principal announced the winners of each category and the overall team ranking. There were prizes for each of the categories, as well as a trophy for the winning team! It was an incredible day. As usual, the students were surprised to see a lekgoa (white/American person) at the event, and delighted to hear my attempts at speaking SeTswana. There were multiple impromptu dance parties, and we were able to pass out the all of the remaining condoms. It was a great way to commemorate my first Youth Day in South Africa!

Impromptu dance party!

Video reel of some highlights

What’s in a Home?

The past month has been full of challenges, and it’s had me missing America quite a bit lately. I had what I think was food poisoning last week, and once I was finally able to eat food, I was desperately wishing for delivery wonton soup. Then, when I tried to go back to work too soon, I longed for an Uber to take me home instead of having to drag my nauseous self through every second of my 35 minute walk home. I also really miss central heating now that South Africa’s winter is in full swing. Don’t even get me started on how much I miss pizza. And most of all, I’ve been missing my friends and family. My friends in my MPA program recently graduated, and now one of my best friends is heading back from Atlanta to the Philippines. I’ve missed being able to be there for those moments.

I know, I know. Sob story. No one in my village has access to delivery food, reliable and convenient transportation, central air, or most amenities common in America. It really helps keep me from feeling too sorry for myself when I get stuck in a funk. Plus, my host family has a toilet- believe me when I say that dealing with food poisoning when you have a toilet is infinitely better than when you only have a pit latrine. Taking time to reflect on those moments of gratitude has helped me to deal with my momentary bouts of self-pity. And I know that one day, I’m going to miss my home here in South Africa the way that I now miss my home in America.

So I’m spending a lot of time focusing on turning my room into my home. I’ve been spending my weekends working on projects, like my cardboard box shelves and an insulated cat home for my family’s cat, Mobotse. I re-read my favorite book series, Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce; any home of mine is incomplete without these books. Weeks ago, I hung up my line of family and friends photos. Also, I bought a toaster oven so that I can start baking again. I’ve developed my own dish-washing and bucket bathing systems to maximize warmth and efficiency.

These efforts have all been helpful in creating a homey atmosphere, but of course, a home is much more than the things inside of it. I’ve been blessed with a truly wonderful host family. At least once a week, my host mom comes by with a delicious baked treat for me. She checked on me while I was sick and made sure that I had everything I needed. Today, my host mom, host sister and I made my Mma’s famous carrot cake for my supervisor’s 50th birthday. I asked my friend Lucky, a local shop owner, to bring me back some saffron when he goes to Pakistan in a month, and this week he gave me a bunch of other delicious spices just because he’s such a generous person. I continue to meet new and warm- hearted people every week who welcome me with open arms. And I’m so lucky to have friends and family back home who are also helping me by sending me a taste of home. Special thanks to Aunt Patti and to Joni for some amazing, and much-appreciated, care packages!

I unexpectedly had to go to Pretoria for a few days this month for some Peace Corps business. It was a strange experience. On the plus side, I met some really great people, including Mel, a very intelligent and wonderful woman who took me around Hatfield, showed me the best shawarma spot, and wants to start her own nonprofit helping connect women and children to services, and her boyfriend Bruce; Beryl, a PC Response Volunteer who provided training for early childhood educators in South Africa; Hope, a PCV from Malawi; and King, a PCV from Rwanda. I had the chance to re-connect with some of the other PCVs in South Africa. Additionally, I had constant access to wifi. The city is covered with restaurants specializing in amazing, gourmet cuisine- I enjoyed everything from incredible gnocchi to drip coffee from Ethiopia. I had to re-download my Uber app to get around. I even had Domino’s delivered and a Burger King burger. But I felt like I had stepped into a strange, parallel universe, where I had one foot in America and one in South Africa. My village had never felt further away. And in a strange way, the whole time I just really wanted to go home. Not to America- to my village. I missed greeting my host mom in the morning; my long, beautiful walk to work; my supervisor’s wry sense of humor; and my friends in the village. In spite of myself, my village has very quickly found its space in my heart.

Don’t Pity the Fool

A fool is “a person who acts unwisely or imprudently”(New Oxford American Dictionary). Being called a “fool” is typically an insult, as immortalized by Mr. T’s catchphrase, “I pity the fool!” I counter that being a fool is actually good for us sometimes. Many Americans I know, especially me, spend a lot of time cultivating an image of omniscience and perfection. That tact stunts learning and is a very unsustainable approach to Peace Corps (as well as life). Conversely, fools don’t worry about looking foolish. Fools take risks, make mistakes, laugh at themselves, and grow. Failure isn’t a shadow dogging their steps; it’s a stepping stone to success.  This past month, I’ve really been trying to embrace my foolish side and challenge my need to preserve a pristine self-image.

For example, I walked to the local middle school two weeks ago and, rather than making the prudent decision of taking the road that I knew, I decided to be foolish and take a potential shortcut. The “shortcut” was beautiful and heavily wooded. Along the way, I met several great community members who helped me out by pointing me in the right direction. After about 20 minutes of walking, I emerged from the path—only to find myself at the bakery, a 10 minute walk from my house! Mildly frustrated, I headed back to the path and took the right fork. Another 10 minutes later, I walked out by the abandoned tavern, roughly a two minute walk from the bakery. I had spent a grand total of 30 minutes doing what would ordinarily be a 12 minute walk, and I was nowhere near the middle school. I was angry at myself for being so foolish, but then I started laughing. Had I not gone exploring, I would have missed out on a gorgeous morning walk, meeting several great people, and a new potential running route!

View of the beautiful “shortcut” pathway

Prudence would also say that when doing a job, follow your job description and avoid tasks that you have no experience in. But by being a bit foolish, I’ve allowed myself to learn some new (and unexpected) skills, including helping students apply for university, designing and printing wedding invitations, food prep, and math tutoring. Every day, about 15 primary (elementary) school kids pour into my org. These kids are classified as “orphans and vulnerable children,” which can mean range from a child who has lost one or both parents and is living with a caretaker or in a child-headed household to a child who is vulnerable to the impacts of HIV. After providing the kids with an early dinner, my coworkers and I offer to help the kids with their homework. Inevitably, their homework is multiplication and long division. I have zero qualifications to be a math tutor; the closest experience I have to tutoring is editing my friends’ CVs, and my version of math is exclusively done via Excel. My fear that I would make a mistake, lack of experience, and inability to explain math in Setswana held me back at first, but my coworkers reminded me that our kids’ caretakers don’t have time to help them with their homework. I definitely make mistakes, but perhaps even my butchered attempts to help our kids work through their math problems are better than no help at all. Opening myself up to doing new tasks totally outside of my experience has been nerve-wracking, but in a lot of ways, these moments have been the best part of my volunteer experience so far.

My attempt at making pap, a staple food here (spoiler: I couldn’t stir fast enough), set to “We No Speak Americano” by DCUP & Yolanda Be Cool

My final case for acting the fool is simply going outside. Since greeting rules dictate that I greet everyone within a ten foot radius of me, the amount of human interaction when I step outside my door is significantly higher here than in the US. This increases the risk of a negative interaction (such as being hit on for the millionth time) but also the potential for a rewarding interaction. Recently, I’ve been spending much of my free time holed up in my room, exhausted from all of the extroverting. Today, I chose instead to go to mass with my host family. I was nervous; not only was I going to church in a totally different country, I also didn’t know many of the Catholic rules and rituals and ran a high risk of accidentally being disrespectful. We arrived a little past 9 AM, when mass was supposed to start, and greeted dozens of people. Service started around 10 AM, and we sat through three and a half hours of singing, praying, kneeling, and sermons almost entirely in Setswana. By the end, I was fretting about whether it looked bad that I had stepped out to use the bathroom and hadn’t taken communion (I’ve always learned that non-Catholics shouldn’t take Catholic communion). I was exhausted from trying to pick up on the Setswana words and blend in as much as possible with the congregation. Afterward, we filtered outside to share in a delicious meal celebrating the Pentecost and the new members of the Catholic Women’s Association, and I slowly realized that my potential slip-ups hadn’t affected how people interacted with me. I certainly made mistakes, but getting to share that experience with my host family made it more than worth it. The wise choice may have been to stay home and avoid offending anyone, but the foolish choice was to risk stepping outside my door.

Yummy Pentecost meal of samp, pap, chicken, pumpkin (butternut squash), cabbage, and potato salad

And in the end, isn’t Peace Corps itself a foolish choice? Is it wise or prudent to leave everything and everyone we know and love behind for two years to live a hemisphere away, among people we’ve never met? To miss important events back home, on the off chance that what we find on the other side is worth what we’re giving up? To forego a paycheck that has enough figures to be worth counting? Sure, the Peace Corps has many rational benefits: valuable experience, a strong network, resettlement benefits, etc. But those weren’t the draw for me, nor do I think that they are for most people who join Peace Corps. I joined Peace Corps for many reasons, but one was to take risks, make mistakes, and have the kinds of transforming experiences that only people willing to make a total fool out of themselves are able to have.

Have any thoughts or questions? Share them in the comments section!

Sonic South Africa


Live R&B at the Blues Room in Johannesburg during my study abroad trip, Dec. 2009

Music has always been a very important influence in my life.  In fact, it’s rare to find me without headphones or delving into new music.  One of my side hobbies since I’ve come to South Africa has been to learn more about the South African music scene and listen to local music.  However, there is a lot of American music presence here, from Rihanna and Beyonce playing in the taxi to Dolly Parton in the background at petrol (gas) stations to an African MTV channel.  It’s made finding South African music somewhat more challenging, but luckily public radio has made that a bit easier.

A bit of background on local music in South Africa: In May 2016, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) declared its commitment to playing 90% local music on its 18 South African public radio stations (SABC 2016).  This decision has been controversial, as some stations experienced a significant drop in listeners and revenue.  One station, Lotus FM, cited that while the decision to promote local content was good, the increase to 90% should have been gradual instead (Business Live 2017).  SABC is now considering reversing that decision, to the consternation of local artists (News24 2017).

Music played an important role in the resistance against apartheid, and traditional songs and dances are still prevalent in my village.  South African musicians span all genres, including rap, hip-hop, gospel, house, jazz, rock, and more.  Prior to coming to South Africa, I had no idea that there was such a strong jazz culture here.  Jazz was incorporated as part of anti-apartheid movements in similar ways to its role in the civil rights movement in the US (Wikipedia).

Kwaito is a uniquely South African genre that emerged in the townships in the 1990s–it “is a distinctly home-grown style of popular dance music that is rooted in Johannesburg urban culture and features rhythmically recited vocals over an instrumental backing with strong bass lines” (Kwaito Music).  Another genre, Maskanda or maskandi, is a “kind of Zulu folk music that is evolving with South African society” (Wikipedia).  I’m very glad to be in a country where music is so omnipresent and important.  I’ve really enjoyed exploring South Africa’s unique and talented music scene so far, including getting to go to a house concert in my area and seeing several top DJs!

Here are a few examples of some different music that’s currently popular in SA:

  • Kwaito- “Wololo” by Babes Wodumo ft. Mampintsha.  This was one of the top-played songs in 2016 and is still all over South Africa.  It’s almost impossible to sit still when it’s playing!
  • Hip Hop- “Don’t Forget to Pray” by AKA and Anatii, the current top song.  AKA is a well-known South African rapper with several hit singles.
  • R&B/Soul- “Amazulu” by Amanda Black, who won South African Music Awards (SAMA) Best Female Artist of the Year.
  • Rap- “Ngud’” by Kwesta ft. Cassper Nyovest.  Kwesta dominated the charts at SAMA, winning Best Male Artist, Best Album, and Best Rap Album among other awards.  This particular song had the highest airplay over the past year in all of South Africa.
  • Maskandi- “Iso Lami” by Khuzani, who won this year’s SAMA for Best Maskandi album.
  • Jazz- “Mayine” by Simphiwe Dana, a very talented jazz artist.

These are just a few examples from a vibrant and diverse musical culture, but hopefully I’ve managed to whet your appetite for more South African music- I know I’m looking forward to diving deeper into the sonic scene here!  Have any suggestions for other South African artists?  Let me know in the comments!

Also, wishing a happy Memorial Day to my American readers, a slightly belated Ramadan mubarak to my Muslim readers, and a very special wedding day to two of my close friends (Emily & Steve) who tied the knot this past weekend!

The Dynamic World of Language

Language is not static; it is interpreted and constantly being created and re-created through experience. My time in South Africa, though brief, has already begun to change how I perceive certain words. As a Communication major in undergrad, one of my favorite theories was Charles Peirce’s semiotics theory. To very briefly summarize, Peirce’s theory was that the understanding of words comprises three parts: 1) representation, or the actual word; 2) object, such as a physical tree; and 3) interpretation, or the person’s understanding of “tree.” For example, my friend could tell me about a tree that she saw. In my mind, I picture an oak tree (object), which are common in Ohio, and subconsciously relate that to pleasant memories of sitting under trees reading or plucking apples (interpretation). My friend, however, is talking about a baobab tree (object) and subconsciously relates that to a time when she fell and broke her leg while climbing a tree (interpretation). [Griffin, First Look at Communication Theory]

Example of Peirce’s semiotic triangle

My time in South Africa has already begun to change my interpretation of certain words. A few examples below:

  • Bucket: vital, multi-purpose tool necessary for daily life. Minimum of 4 buckets needed: one for a chamber pot, one to fetch water, one to wash dishes in, and one large basin to bathe self and clothes in. Realistically, you need two buckets for handwashing- one to wash and one to rinse, but I use my water-fetching bucket for rinsing.

My life in buckets, clockwise: Chamber pot gifted to me by former PCV Barbara; Dishes bucket; Water bucket and bathing basin

  • Chips: fries.  Due to colonization by the British, most of the English here is British English.
  • Directions: forget street signs and Google Maps in the village. My village is large enough to have several sections, which are largely used for verbal directions along with major landmarks (the pond, shops, schools, etc.). Since I haven’t learned the sections yet, I navigate by going with someone or asking every passerby if I’m going the right way.
  • Fast food: sphatlo or kota, a sandwich concoction somewhat reminiscent of a gyro. The sandwich base is chips, and beyond that, you can choose to either add egg, French (baloney), Russian (sausage), Vienna (hot dog), or my favorite, a burger. Although the default is to have it with mango achar, or pickled mango, I usually request it sans achar as it’s an acquired taste! (Read more about kota preparation here) There’s no other pre-prepared food, or even restaurants, here in the village, although you’ll find many restaurants and familiar fast-food chains in the cities.

Sphatlo [photo credit: Forbes]

  • Internet: data.  There’s one place in my shopping town that offers free wi-fi, but it’s very slow.  Most people purchase data bundles for phones or tablets, and those who do have laptops have to transfer documents to their tablets in order to email them unless they purchase a relatively pricey modem stick at about R900 (and then you still have to buy the data).  Even with phones, it’s best to have one for each of the two main cellphone providers (MTN and Vodacom) so you can switch when signal isn’t good.  For example, there’s a Vodacom tower next to work but at home, MTN signal is much stronger.
  • Pumpkin: butternut squash.
  • Road: in the US, when I say “road,” I mean a paved road. Where I currently live, there are three categories: tar (paved), gravel, and sand.
    1) Tar road– My village has one tar road, and this tends to be where most of the stores, taverns (bars), schools, and other main landmarks are clustered around for access. We call it “the tar road,” similar to “the Ohio State University.”
    2) Gravel road– There are several gravel roads in my village, one of which is my route to work. They’re usually wide enough to comfortably fit two cars and have varying amounts of gravel. Though they get pretty muddy during the rain, they tend to still be drivable.
    3) Sand road– By far the most popular roads in my village, these range from grass-covered pathways in between houses to sandy passages that are wide enough for about one car. The sand tends to be so deep that cars get stuck (as has already happened to me) and they turn into mud-filled, unnavigable swamps when it rains.

Clockwise from top left: The tar road; A sand road; A muddy gravel road; A dry gravel road

  • Taxi/Public transportation: 12- to 20-passenger minibuses, or kombi, crammed full of people and bags, and the only real form of public transportation between villages (there are buses for some long-distance travel). Getting a taxi usually requires getting to the tar road, waiting between 10 minutes and an hour for a taxi going to your location to show up, giving the right hand signal for where you’re going and then double-checking that the driver is actually going there, paying the base fare for your ride that’s determined by the taxi associations, and yelling “short left!” or “short right!” so the taxi can careen to a halt at your destination. Some taxis are quite nice, but often the ones in the villages are downtrodden from being ridden over countless pockmarked sand roads. More on these (with pictures) in a later post!
  • Water: an essential ingredient to life. I’m very fortunate to live in a village now that has a relatively bountiful supply of water, but when I was in my training village, water was incredibly scarce. My family in my training village depends solely on rainwater, which is captured in a large Jojo tank and several barrels. When it hadn’t rained in a while, I bought large water bottles for drinking, learned to use 1/8 of a bucket full of water to bathe, saved dish water, and learned other methods of water conservation from my training village host family. In the village next to where I currently live, taps aren’t readily available so people typically buy their water.

These are just a few examples of how words have shifted meaning for me since I arrived. There are more intangible concepts that are changing for me as well, such as time, patience, and fun, but I’m still working on what those mean to me in a South African context. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this brief insight into life in my village!

An Ode to Caffeine: a Third-Culture Coffee Exchange


Fresh coffee beans (pre- and post-roast) from Ethiopia

I have loved my time in South Africa so far. I enjoy the kind-hearted and generous people, the delicious food, the beautiful SeTswana language, the gorgeous vistas, and the hip-shaking beats here in my village. But…

I miss coffee. One month into my first full-time job, I joined the ranks of many American coffee addicts. Six years later, I drink at least two cups a day and often go out of my way on trips to sample particularly delightful coffee. I often frequented one of my favorite coffee shops in Atlanta, ébrik, for their mouthwatering Turkish coffee—perfect fuel for late-night grad school exams.

I didn’t really drink coffee during my study abroad to South Africa in college, so it slipped my attention that there isn’t much of a coffee culture here in the rural areas. During PST, many of my caffeine-starved cohort mates and I tried to make do with Ricoffy, a South African concoction of chicory root and coffee. We quickly realized what I would later confirm- Ricoffy has approximately the same amount of caffeine as an American decaf coffee (the funny part is that Ricoffy actually has a decaf brand). Ricoffy is tasty and perfect for someone looking for a very slight caffeine boost, but it’s nowhere near strong enough to maintain me through three hours of Tswana grammar. Luckily, I brought a 20 oz. bag of Seattle’s Best ground coffee with me to South Africa, but I diligently rationed it to ensure that I was maximizing its caffeine potential.

The ubiquitous Ricoffy (photo credit Amazon UK)

Ricoffy= 6 mg. caffeine/8 fl. oz. – Caffeine Informer; vs.

Average cup of coffee= 95 mg. caffeine/8 fl. oz. (about 93% more caffeine than Ricoffy)- USDA

In the rural village where I’m living, there is a strong preference for tea—typically rooibos or Five Roses, a black tea similar to English breakfast tea. There are many small “tuck” shops which sell snack food and a fast-food sandwich called sphatlo but no cafés. I have found ground coffee and cafés in my shopping town, so I’ve been able to indulge my caffeine addiction daily now that I’m at site. I still drink Ricoffy in the afternoon to help me over the 2 PM hump without affecting my sleep. As much as I’m grateful for this access, however, I still miss being able to go into some of my favorite coffee shops for a well-crafted cup of joe.

Enter my new friends, Lydia, Sammy and their adorable daughter, who emigrated to South Africa from Ethiopia and run a tuck shop near me. We quickly bonded over my love-bordering-on-obsession for injera and other Ethiopian food. Lydia invited me to the shop on Friday to taste some freshly brewed Ethiopian coffee, which I excitedly accepted. She started by roasting the fresh beans from Ethiopia, which she got from another Ethiopian friend in South Africa. The unroasted beans reminded me of peanuts (see picture up top) as she began to roast them in a long-handled pot. The beans quickly turned a dark brown, emanating a rich odor of coffee. Once roasted, she used a coffee grinder to get them to a fine powder. Then Lydia boiled a pot of water with the grounds inside. She asked me if I wanted to try the coffee with salt or sugar; never having tried salt with my coffee, I decided to be adventurous. She used a tablespoon to dole out the salt into small Ethiopian coffee cups and then added the coffee, pouring delicately but without a filter, and served the coffee with some sweet buns. The salt was interesting, but the coffee was, without a doubt, the most heavenly drink I’ve tasted in months!

Coffee preparation

While sipping my coffee and enjoying my time with Lydia, Sammy and their daughter, two South Africans—the woman from the bakery next door and a university student in the middle of studying— also tried the coffee! I like to think that my caffeine addiction helped facilitate a wider cultural exchange between my Ethiopian and South African friends. As I sat there chatting, I felt the comfort of the coffee shops that I was missing in the company of new friends.

Beyond coffee, I also want to take a moment to acknowledge two very important days: my mom’s birthday and Mother’s Day! Those who know my mom know how important she is to me, and how she has unwaveringly supported me in all of my crazy adventures. I wish that I could be celebrating both big days with her, but we’ll have to settle for a Whatsapp call and a sappy blog message instead.

One of my favorite pictures of my Mom and I, which currently hangs on my photo chain in my room

Operation: Integration


Village views

My job for the next three months is to conduct a community needs assessment (CNA) and integrate into my family, work, and community. One of the aspects that drew me to Peace Corps is their grassroots approach to development; during my CNA period, the emphasis is on me building relationships rather than jumping in to implement unsustainable and uninformed programs. I’m currently working at my org three days a week and traveling around the community for my CNA the other two days. I spend a lot of time greeting community members, desperately trying to remember the names of the 100+ people I meet every week, and sharing small moments where I feel as though I’ve done well (and many other times when I don’t). Thankfully, my community is full of some very patient tutors! For example, this past week my org asked me to do a roll call at our daily lunch for secondary (high school) students. In typical American fashion, I began reading out the students’ names without an introduction or greeting. I ended up marking about 20 students absent (largely because I couldn’t hear some of the students, who often speak very quietly) until one of my coworkers helped me to correct my mistake. I introduced myself in my broken Tswana attempts and asked the students to help me by speaking loudly, and the rest of roll call went much more smoothly!

I’ve been very fortunate in my integration thus far. Quite a few people saw me last weekend at the wedding, and I bonded with some of the women helping to cook and clean for the event. Also, the local social workers come to my org on Wednesdays to meet with people in the village so they don’t have to travel to the main office. I am taking advantage of this to meet some of the people (mostly women, several with small children) in my area who are receiving support from the Department of Social Development and talk about what they perceive are the needs and opportunities in the village. My org also does home visits, and I’ll be accompanying two of my coworkers this week to get to know the families we serve this week. As I keep reiterating, integration happens in the small moments and the relationships built. For instance, I shared with two of my coworkers that I had learned the “[X] namela thaba” wedding song, and we ended up having an amazing, impromptu sing-along. Then later that week, my coworker announced that she was getting married in August and trusted me enough to request that I design her wedding invitations!

I’ve also been spending some time in my shopping town both to finish outfitting my room and also to relax. Getting to my shopping town entails getting up very early to walk to the tar road and catch a taxi; taking a 30 minute taxi (read: SA’s rural public transportation) ride to another, larger town; then getting off at the taxi rank, waiting around an hour for that taxi to fill up, and an hour-long ride to my actual shopping town. I’ve been doing a lot of my shopping at Game, which is sort of South Africa’s equivalent of Walmart. Many of the people in my shopping town speak Tswana, so I try to use it as an opportunity to practice and make friends. Recently, I was buying a heater (SA gets cold during its winter season, which is now) and the friendly associate helping me was floored that I could speak Tswana and that I traveled by taxi. I’m constantly surprised at the level of amazement other people have when they find out that I’m learning Tswana, living in a village, and doing ordinary things like riding a taxi; PCVs have been in South Africa since 1997 and my village alone has had five PCVs, including me. This past weekend, Bobby (the most recent PCV) and I went to our shopping town for a relaxing weekend. We went to a spa, ate some delicious food, watched a lot of Animal Planet, and enjoyed the pool! I came back today feeling refreshed and ready to flex my burgeoning Tswana skills. I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to Black Motion, a great South African artist, also- their song “Imali Imali” was practically the theme of my cohort’s PST! I highly recommend giving it a listen:

Yummy breakfast of sharonfruit (persimmon), koeksister (honey-covered pastry), and brie

Peaceful garden at the spa

One of my cohort mates recently pointed out that, as of yesterday, we have been in South Africa for 100 days. That really made me pause. One hundred days sounds like a long time; almost a third of a year, and a little over three months. But in reality, one hundred days is hardly any time at all. Nearly 8,500 days ago, South Africa held its first democratic elections after the demise of apartheid. Now, the country celebrates Freedom Day every April 27 to commemorate that landmark day in 1994. But, as this article points out, the freedom celebrated: “should mean emancipation from poverty, unemployment, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination… and many of these issues are still rife in our country…. Freedom Day therefore serves as a reminder to us that the guarantee of our freedom requires us to remain permanently vigilant against corruption and the erosion of the values of the Freedom Struggle and to build an active citizenry that will work towards wiping out the legacy of racism, inequality, and the promotion of the rights embodied in our constitution.” (South African History Online, These words apply far beyond South Africa and are a galvanizing call to us all to reject complacency in the face of inequality, and to commit to this fight not for 100 days, or a year, but for a lifetime.

Lenyalo la buti wa ka! (My Brother’s Wedding)


My gogo, who I call Mma, and host brother Andrew walking down the aisle

This week was all about the impending wedding of my host brother, Andrew, and his fiancée, Mantoba.  We had community members and relatives at the house round the clock cooking, cleaning, setting up, and dropping off contributions such as drinks, food, plates, etc. South African weddings are quite a lot of work! The most recent PCV, Barbara, also came to visit for the wedding, so we were roommates for the weekend.

Andrew and Mantoba’s wedding was two days: the first day, Saturday, was the “white wedding” ceremony. This was similar to American wedding ceremonies. After that was a more traditional South African reception at the bride’s house, and day 2 was a traditional reception at the groom’s house where I live. My family hired some of our relatives to do catering, but unlike most American weddings that I’ve been to, the bulk of the cooking and clean-up crew was family and friends who helped out as their contribution to the wedding. Friday was a buzz of activity, and I helped a bit with cooking. Although we have an oven, we mainly cooked over the fire in giant pots to accommodate the large servings. I helped stir the cabbage and tried to help with the pap (a traditional South African dish made from corn that’s similar to mashed potatoes), but I couldn’t stir fast enough! Saturday morning we headed to the lodge for the wedding ceremony, which was decorated magnificently. Margaret, one of our relatives, took pity on me and helped me to tie my headwrap- she did a great job, but I did feel like I was channeling Chiquita Banana! Sadly, my camera died early on in the ceremony, so I only have a few photos. Andrew danced down the aisle with Mma, and I teared up a little. We’ve only been family for a short time, but I am so grateful to be living with such wonderful people! Next were the bridesmaids and groomsmen; Andrew and Mantoba’s son and ringbearer, Ditiro, who was wearing a sign that said, “Daddy, here comes our girl!;” and finally, Mantoba, who looked incredible, with her father. The priest, Father Vincent, gave a speech in SeTswana, punctuated by traditional wedding songs. I don’t know how the audience knew when to sing which song, but they were beautiful! My favorite was one that goes: “Andrew namela thaba, o ba botse goreng wena o nyetse” or “Andrew is climbing the mountain, he must tell them why [he] is married” (rough translation, and please excuse any misspelling). Two of my cohort members came to visit, and it was also great to catch up with them and share my first South African wedding!

One of my relatives, Mma, my cousin Mapula, and my cousin Sthupi dressed to the nines for the wedding

Sthuphi and I

After that, we all piled on the bus that my family hired to drive to the village next to mine for the bride’s traditional reception. A friend of mine explained that the family kept the gate open to show that anyone in the community is welcome, and there were hundreds of people there. There was a lot of singing, dancing, speeches, and delicious food. We ate ting (fermented pap- it tastes better than it sounds), beef, chicken, salad, morogo (a local green similar to spinach), and rice. At one point, a procession of people wearing face paint, fake noses, and other costumes walked in led by a man in a wedding dress. This was the groom’s family come to poke some light-hearted fun, and the next day this would be replicated at the groom’s reception by the bride’s family. We left around four to ensure my friends got the taxi home before dark and so that I could go help with food prep for the reception at our house the next day. I helped peel and chop butternut squash and potatoes for several hours, enjoying the company of dozens of women from my village. I was so slow in comparison to them, but I ingratiated myself by practicing my Tswana and attempting to join in the impromptu singing. Around 10 P.M., Andrew and Mantoba returned to the house as a married couple. All of the people helping (which was at least 50) swarmed our gate, singing and dancing, as they drove in. A neighbor explained that the bride is stopped at the gate to pay the previously agreed-upon dowry, or labola, if it hasn’t been paid already. She also explained that the bride arrived so late as symbolic of her father’s reluctance to let her go, which I thought was sweet. The prep and set up continued until at least 2 A.M., but Barbara and I were exhausted so we headed to bed.

The following day I was up bright and early to help with food prep. My host family all went to church, but I stayed behind to chop spinach and peel carrots. I became fast friends with my companion, Lekeledi, who is part of a group that runs a self-funded charity to feed destitute families in Pretoria and to provide them with hygiene kits, school uniforms, and school fees. She told me that her dream is to start her own non-profit that focuses on enabling girls to get an education and have more opportunities, and she was inspired by her own struggles to pay for and access her education. I was very inspired by her passion and commitment to women’s empowerment, and we exchanged information to stay in touch! Our house was insanely busy, and I barely managed to bathe and change before the reception started. A big brass band came in to herald the start, followed by a great women’s dance group. Afterward, the bride’s uncle came bearing gifts, including an umbrella with rand (the local currency) paperclipped to an umbrella. This was followed by the bride’s family doing their mock procession.  The bride and groom returned from church about an hour later, and then things really kicked into high gear. They performed a practiced dance with the bridesmaids and groomsmen as they entered, looking stunning in their traditional wedding garb. The dance ended at the main tent, which was one of three tents in our yard.

Dancing as the bride’s uncle presents gifts

Mma pulled Barbara and I into the main tent, which is reserved for close family and friends. I was very grateful to be included and have an up-close seat for the rest of the wedding. Our tent got a tasty appetizer and champagne to toast the bride and groom. Once again, there were speeches, a prayer, and lots of traditional songs and dance. I was amazed by the beautiful fashions—I really love the traditional SeTswana clothes. There was also a motivational speaker, which I found surprising and interesting! All of the speeches were in Tswana, but I picked up some key words like “love each other (ratana).” We dined on pap, some succulent beef, a delicious broccoli salad, butternut squash (called pumpkin here), a bean salad, and more! I may be biased, but I thought our food was better than at the bride’s reception

Main wedding tent

Bride, groom, bridesmaids and groomsmen dancing to the main tent

After the main part of the reception, I helped clean up. There had to be at least a thousand people at our house! My host family is very popular. I also hung out with some of the local kids that I’ve befriended and showed them how to use my camera. My supervisor, Martha, was there and looked particularly on point with her gorgeous outfit, and I also saw some friends from another org. The electricity went in and out during the day (probably from overuse) and went off again at night. I brought my headlamp out to help with the braai. Braai is sort of like the South African version of barbecue, except better. They roast sausages called boerewors and beef. Just as I came to help, the electricity came back on, but the headlamp still proved useful for delighting some of the kids. While the braai was starting, I helped to clean some of the hundreds of plates. My washing companion, Ginny, is a manufacturer who started her own traditional embroidery company after losing her last job. They focus mostly on clothing, specifically traditional wedding clothes. She’s looking into starting embroidery manufacturing in-house to save costs. We quickly bonded, and I marveled at how lucky I was to meet two amazing women working on empowering women in just one day!

Post-reception dance party

My supervisor, Martha, and I

After washing dishes, I met one of my host cousins. He complimented me on my integration into, and respect of, Tswana culture. I was glowing with pride. I feel as though I’m constantly making mistakes, such as using the wrong greeting. It’s hard to remember sometimes that the most important part of my service is learning about and respecting another culture, but moments like these really drive that point home. I enjoyed some of the very delicious braai afterward, then collapsed into bed around 11:30 P.M. with the party still raging. Today, I’ve helped out with more of the cleaning as we set out the pots, pans, dishes, chafing dishes, spoons, etc. for those who donated them to come pick up. It’s never a dull day!

Post-wedding clean-up

This post has excluded many other wonderful and amazing people that I met, but suffice to say there are a lot of great people in my village, and I’m very excited to be here. Most of all, I want to acknowledge the many men and women that have been at the house daily to cook, clean, set up, and tear down for the wedding for free. It’s a very different concept than American weddings. Unfortunately for any future South African weddings, this one set the bar really high!

Going from a “T” to a “V”


My host gogo, brother and I after Appreciation Day

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!

My language group, the Pedi Pals

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.

10 long weeks of hard work to go from “T” to “V!”

The 33 SA35s who swore in as PCVs

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.

Photo chain

The beautiful pond

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!