Six Month-aversary

Apologies for a long delay between blog updates!  The past month I’ve been all over South Africa for work and vacation, and my cohort celebrated passing its six month mark (and my half-birthday) in South Africa on July 26!

We started in Bronkhorstpruit, a pretty little town outside of Pretoria, for PCSA’s All Volunteer conference.  We hold these about once every two years, and it’s a great time to meet people outside of your cohort, especially those working in the education sector.  I had a great time making new friends, appreciating the natural beauty around me, sharing knowledge with the other PCVs, and having some time set aside to process our experiences so far.  All Vol lasted four days, and then my cohort (SA35) headed straight down to Pietermaritzburg, KZN, for a two-week long work training called in-service training (IST).


Lakeside view at All Vol

IST was long and intense.  We started with a project design & management training with counterparts from our organization, then moved on to some training on potential projects.  First, we worked with Grassroot Soccer, an organization that uses soccer to teach youth about HIV.  Next, we were trained as i-ACT facilitators for HIV support groups and were able to benefit from the wealth of HIV knowledge that SA Partners had. I am so grateful for my counterpart, Lydia, who went through these trainings also.  We wrapped up with some admin training on writing grants using PC’s system and monitoring and evaluation for programs.  Sadly, we didn’t have much time to explore Pietermaritzburg, but I did enjoy the nearby park!

Image 1: PCSA35 poses after completing IST and our reaching our 6 month mark; Image 2: My counterpart, Lydia, and I celebrating after designing our “Tirisano” project during PDM training

Following the two and a half weeks of nonstop work (no rest days, including the weekend), it was time for a much-needed vacation.  My friend Megan and I traveled to Durban for some beach time.  There were a lot of highlights of the trip, including going to a great art museum featuring women’s exhibitions for International Women’s Day, eating a gelato pop dipped in dark chocolate and almonds, and walking along the beach collecting seashells.

Clockwise from top left: Megan & I enjoying the beach breeze; Relaxing on the porch; A powerful exhibit at the KZN Society of the Arts gallery; Obligatory feet in the sea photo; Freedom Park

Then I was on to Johannesburg (aka Joburg or Josie) to see Trevor Noah‘s “There’s a Gupta on My Stoep” show with a few other PCVs!  Trevor Noah, who replaced Jon Stewart as the host of The Daily Show in 2015, is one of the most well-known South Africans in America and has received a lot of acclaim for his recent memoir, Born A Crime (which you should absolutely read if you haven’t already).  His amazing show did not disappoint with spot-on impersonations of politicians and incisive quips about current events in both South Africa and the US.


A horrible quality photo of one of the best stand-up shows

We also explored Joburg, a city with a rich history and culture that reminds me of Atlanta in many ways.  The NeighbourGoods Market was a particular highlight- great food from many vendors, a beautiful rooftop, and a DJ spinning great jams who could read the crowd perfectly.  The Maboneng district in general was a lot of fun.  Saturday night, we went to the Sharks vs. Lions rugby match and cheered the Sharks onto a Cinderella-esque victory!  Next time I hope to do a tour of Soweto, a critical location in the anti-apartheid struggle.  I’m grateful to have commemorated six months in South Africa with so many great and interesting experiences in this amazing country!

OCA Madness

Remember a few weeks ago when I mentioned that I was doing an organizational capacity assessment (OCA) with my organization? Well, we finished the assessment phase, and we also had an all-staff workshop this past Thursday to decide where to focus our energy for the next year!

Small group exercise during the results workshop

So what exactly IS an OCA? An OCA is a way to look at the strengths and weaknesses of an organization. There are many OCA tools, but I chose the International HIV/AIDS Alliance’s CBO Capacity Analysis tool because it’s geared towards small, grassroots organization that work with HIV. The tool reviewed seven key areas: governance and strategy, finances, administration and human resources, project design and management, technical capacity, networking and advocacy, and community ownership and accountability. We worked together to create a baseline by doing staff |interviews, management team interviews, and document review.

Me facilitating the staff vision session

Everything was a bit rushed to squeeze the all-staff results workshop in before Peace Corps’ in-service training, but we managed to pull it off! I am super grateful to my amazing tutor, Dikeledi, who helped me translate all of the areas evaluated by the OCA tool into Sesotho; the youth center for cooking lunch and taking pictures for us; and the LCCS staff for all of their hard work. It was really great to use my organizational management skills in such a different environment than I’m used to.

Staff bonding after a delicious lunch cooked by the youth center

The workshop built on itself to help ensure that staff had a good foundation of knowledge and were able to make informed decisions about LCCS’s action plan. We started with an exercise to come up with a “recipe” for a good organization. Then we connected each “ingredient” from the teams to the tool areas to help explain what each area covered. Staff then voted on their top three OCA tool areas using stickers, deciding on governance and strategy, project design and management, and finances. I presented the results of the assessment, and we took time to celebrate LCCS’s strengths, including a small group exercise on “What Makes You Proud to Work at LCCS?”

Staff using stickers to rank the top OCA tool areas

Staff working on their recipe for a good organization

We also did a fun trust-building activity about leadership. One group member stood at the finish line without a blindfold, while the other two stood at the start line with blindfolds. The goal is for the “leaders” to guide their teammates to the finish line using only their voice. The two rules were that the leader couldn’t cross the finish line to help their team, and if any staff bumped into another team’s members, they would both have to go back to the starting line. This activity was followed by staff drawing vision maps of the future, voting on their top three projects to focus on next year, and assigning responsible people. It was amazing and invigorating to see the high level of staff participation. We capped the day off with a certificate ceremony, and we celebrated with no-bake cookies, an American classic 😊

Team-building activity

One of the groups presenting their vision map

Thursday was definitely one of the best days since I’ve come to the village. The OCA was incredibly challenging at times, but I am excited to work with LCCS to develop and implement our capacity building action plan for next year! Mostly, I am incredibly grateful to all the people that made the process successful and relieved that it went well.

Certificate ceremony!

Enjoying the no-bake cookies


The Story of Mobotse the Cat

Mobotse looking cute

Let me begin with a tale of a young girl who was very allergic to cats and of a cat named Mobotse. Being around cats, or even just their dander, made her itch and sneeze to no end. The poor girl realized that petting cats was out of the question. Luckily, she preferred dogs and was not allergic to them. Around high school, her cat allergy miraculously subsided! She even lived with a cat owned by her roommate for a few months. Then, around 25, her cat allergy began to return, culminating in an interesting night visiting her former roommate and cat where both eyes swelled up like balloons. From that point on, she avoided cats as much as possible. Later, she eventually found herself living with another roommate with a cat, but luckily Amor spent most of her time outside. She requested that her new family in Peace Corps not have a cat. She probably should have realized then that she was obviously going to get a family with a cat.

Mobotse was adopted as a young kitten by a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). She lived a different life than most of the cats around her. In the village, cats typically lived entirely outside and ate leftovers. This may sound strange to some, but please remember that here, cats and dogs serve to protect the home and keep away pests rather than to only be pets. It’s a much better life for a dog or a cat to have a family than to live alone on the streets.

Mobotse showing off her jumping skills

The golden-and-white kitten lived well on dry cat food, sleeping and eating in the PCV’s room and spending her days wandering around the yard. When that PCV left, she was instantly adopted by the next PCV. She grew into a beautiful cat with a loving mom and family. Then, along came a new PCV who was allergic to cats. She was unceremoniously booted from her warm home to live outside full- time because the PCV’s allergies were too bad to risk her coming near her bed. The host family still continued to pet her and feed her a mix of dry food and leftovers, but the new PCV mainly avoided her. Chickens and dogs from around the village would eat her food.

Mobotse in her new cardboard home

One night, the PCV heard her crying outside her door. She had curled up inside a tiny cardboard box, mewing pitifully in the cold air. The PCV felt terribly guilty, and built her a larger, insulated cardboard home the next day. After a little coaxing, she finally got Mobotse inside. Over the next few weeks, the PCV slowly began to warm up to the cat. She ordered some allergy medicine and began to spend time petting and playing with Mobotse, always making sure to wash her hands thoroughly afterward. The PCV’s host mom had the brilliant idea to bring Mobotse’s food bowl inside the main house, where the chickens and dogs wouldn’t go, and Mobotse began to gain some of her weight back. The PCV began to look forward to spending time with Mobotse after a long day and grew very fond of her.

And that’s the story of how Mobotse the cat decided that, despite my allergies and initial hesitations, she would adopt me as her human. It’s still a challenge some days. Cats are cats, and that means she does things that drive me batty at times. But I’m still grateful that this little one decided I was worth it!

Have any thoughts on this post or want to share a story about your pet? Write it in the comments!

An Unconquerable Spirit

Several staff from my org, LCCS, with a banner made at an HIV education camp

Three months ago, I arrived at my site with one primary assignment: integration via an intensive Community Needs Assessment (CNA). Since then, I’ve done interviews with all kinds of stakeholders: schools, non-profit organizations (NPO), the clinic, social workers, the headman (traditional leader), local businesses, and informal conversations with residents. This also comprised a pretty exhaustive document review. Needless to say, I was flexing my grad school muscles for the first time in a while!

I submitted the draft of my CNA to Peace Corps this past Friday and felt very rewarded. They’ll provide feedback so that we can revise with our orgs and use it as a guide for potential projects. In the next draft, I hope to have finalized the organizational capacity assessment that I started with LCCS this past month. We’ll be finishing the assessment portion on Monday, and the full results will be presented at an all-staff workshop on Thursday, July 13. I’m excited to work with everyone to celebrate what LCCS is already doing well, prioritize areas for improvement, and work together on a plan for the next year. At the end of this month, I’ll be heading to PC’s In-Service Training with my supervisor and counterpart from LCCS to get more training on HIV-specific programming. So what were some of the findings of my CNA?

My village has quite a few challenges. Most of the infrastructure is old and too small to accommodate the current population, especially in schools and NPOs. My ward (about 10,000 people) had the highest unemployment rate in the municipality (roughly similar to a county in the US) at a whopping 65%. Residents also cited food security as a top concern, and most of the NPOs in the area provide at least one meal during the week for their beneficiaries. There are few recreational outlets or programs in the village, and opportunities after students pass matric (similar to graduating from high school) can be hard to access when relying on data, which gets expensive. Getting exact estimates for HIV prevalence is difficult, but in 2011, about a quarter of the population in my municipality had HIV. Learning about the needs in my community felt incredibly overwhelming at times, especially the look in the eyes of my interviewees when I fumbled through an explanation of what little help I might be able to offer them.

Margaret works at the local NPO for the active aging population, which coordinates our local team for the provincial sports competitions, provides meals, and hosts adult education classes

However, my village is incredibly self-sufficient. I am awed by the level of coordination and adaptability here. I had just begun to think about the potential for a project such as a community garden to address food security needs when I met a nascent NPO that was already talking about such a garden. Several NPOs are currently working, or previously worked, for years without receiving any kind of payment. My village even has an ad hoc, volunteer safety committee that helps to respond to local needs. Most structures—schools, NPOs, traditional healers, daycares, pastors—have their own coordination platform. Beyond that, there are several purely volunteer organizations that help out with community events like weddings and funerals. There are strong links between the clinic, home-based care NPO, and social workers. Finding funding is a challenge, but seeing their drive to serve their communities regardless of the obstacles has been an invaluable source of inspiration to me. Yesterday, I re-watched Invictus, a movie about Mandela and the South African rugby team that is named for a poem that inspired Mandela during his prison stay, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. The poem that is the movie’s namesake reminds me of the same unconquerable spirit that I find in my village:

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Want to learn more about the village where I’ll be spending the next two years of my life? Shoot me a message and I’d be happy to email you a full copy of my CNA! Also, please let me know if you have any thoughts on this post in the comments!

Lost in Translation

Most of my village speaks English relatively well (certainly much better than I speak Setswana), but people don’t use English much in the village. Most of the meetings, church services, and other gatherings that I attend are conducted in Setswana.  Since I am still learning Setswana, I spend quite a lot of time straining to understand conversations. Eventually, I stop trying and mentally check out, overwhelmed by the rapid stream of words and caught up in their undulating rhythm. I often wonder if this is a small, much easier glimpse into what people who aren’t native English speakers must experience living in the US.

To help keep myself engaged and occupied during these times, I created a game for myself. Rules below! I’m currently accepting applications for the game name, patent pending 😉

Goal: For every hour that you spend listening to a conversation in a language that you’re learning, identify a number of words equal to the number of days you’ve spent learning the language (ex. if you’ve been learning Setswana for 150 days, try to identify 150 words in a 1 hour session)


  1. Do not count acronyms or words in your primary language (for me, that’s English).
  2. If words are part of a common phrase (for example, ka morago ga is a phrase in Setswana that translates to “after that”), count the entire phrase as one point.
  3. If you can understand a whole sentence, give yourself 10 points automatically, you rockstar!
  4. Count surreptitiously on your fingers without arousing anyone’s suspicions.
  5. If you manage to hit the goal, reward yourself!  I recommend some Lemon Creams- yum.

Do you have any name suggestions or other games for how to keep yourself engaged when listening to a conversation in another language? Leave them below in the comments!

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!