Intro

Hello everyone!  I’m Lindsay, a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa working as a Community HIV Outreach Volunteer.  To learn more, see my About Me & FAQs page and my first post. To learn more about elands and why I named my page after them, check out Elands.  For more on my Peace Corps journey, see my application timeline, and then take a look at some other PCV blogs.  This blog is my perspective on living within a Setswana village in South Africa, so it is important to note that this is not representative of the many cultures, people or places of South Africa and is filtered through my personal lens.  You can stay up-to-date with my adventures by clicking on the “Follow” button on the right-hand side of your screen!

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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!

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).

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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.

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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!