Week 3

Hello all! I’m not going to give you a play by play this week because I’m bored with that haha. But there is something else I want to write about. One day this week I was sitting in the shade under the carport when three high school students walked up and asked me to complete a survey for a project they were doing on population movements.

The questions included: Where did you move from? Was it a city, a town, a village, or a farm? Where did you move to? Was it a city, a town, a village, or a farm? Why did you move away from the place where you lived? Why did you move to the place where you live now? How has your move changed your life?

I laughed out loud for like two minutes when I read the last question.

Seriously?? Ka nnete??? How has my move changed my life? How has it NOT changed my life would be a much shorter and more simple list. I wrote down a few things that were mostly artificial, but the whole survey got me really thinking.

Why did I leave home? Why did I move here? How has my life changed?

Those are really tough questions to answer as a Peace Corps volunteer, especially the last one. Bare with me while I try.

Why did you move away from the place where you lived?

I want to see the world, learn about new cultures and people, make new friends and new connections, and make a difference. I know “make a difference” is a very broad goal, but in Peace Corps training we were taught to rejoice in the little things. If I can teach just one learner to question what they are told instead of just accepting everything as fact…..if I can help just one learner build his or her self esteem….if I can inspire just one learner to develop a love for reading….then I will feel like I have made a difference, even if it is a small one. I think even just being a white person who can speak a little Sepedi living in a rural South African village has made a difference because it shows people here that I care and I really want to be a part of their community.

Why did you move to the place where you live now?

Speaking broadly, because Peace Corps told me to. I was originally supposed to leave America in September for a placement in the Youth Development sector, but I received an email asking if I would be willing to leave sooner for a placement in the Education sector and I obviously said yes.

More specifically, I am in this village because the wonderful APCD, Nthabiseng, who is in charge of my site placement, listened closely in my interviews about my hopes for my service and placed me in exactly the right host family in exactly the right village with exactly the right school for me.

Everything that has ever happened in my life has culminated in this moment. Every experience I have ever had, good or bad, has helped prepare me to be the best volunteer I can be.

How has your move changed your life?

For starters, I now have three moms, three dads, a sister, four brothers, a niece, and a nephew instead of just one mom, one dad, and a brother. Both of my host families have been WONDERFUL and before I got here I had no idea how quickly and easily they would truly become family to me.

I have already forged new connections and relationships with people (both from South Africa and from America) that I never would have met if I hadn’t come here. I came here to learn about another culture and other people, but also to learn about myself. The people I have met in South Africa have so much they could teach me about myself and about life. I have met amazing, strong, resilient, intelligent, motivated, and passionate people who make me want to learn and grow each and every day.

I have learned (sort of) a new language that I had never even heard of before, eaten foods I never would have chosen to eat in America, learned how to successfully use public transportation, and gotten used to walking quite a lot every day. I have definitely left my comfort zone in a huge way, which seems appropriate since Peace Corps advertisements say “life begins at the end of your comfor zone.”

Things that were SO important in America seem totally stupid now. I remember how I used to complain about the slow internet (which just makes me laugh out loud to think about) or the price of a movie ticket or how long it might take me to find a place to park or to drive somewhere or how crowded Walmart or Ingles was.

The most valuable thing I have realized so far about being here is that the people are wonderful. In America, someone can be very wealthy and never want for anything and still be miserable. Here, people who barely have access to shelter and running water and who struggle daily with food insecurity are still always smiling, welcoming, and willing to share.
The concept of “ubuntu” is quite amazing and I urge you to look it up.

There is so much more I could say, but instead I am going to practice self-care and go to sleep. Go well my friends!

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Weeks 1 and 2 at Permanent Site

On Wednesday, I went into the school for a little bit before the deputy principal and HOD took me to meet the principal of the high school, the CEO of the local hospital, and the equivalent of our superintendent. We picked up one of the School Governing Board (SGB) members at the hospital and she talked to me for a little bit back at my school before I worked with the books. I can’t remember if I wrote about this last time or not, but the volunteer I replaced got a TON of books donated to start a library. Like 1,840 of them. So I spent a lot of time this week opening the boxes and sorting them by type. On Wednesday some learners stayed after school and helped me with the sorting, then I went home and a couple of different learners and other kids came over. I read part of the Enormous Crocodile to them because they asked me to read to them, but they weren’t behaving very well so I stopped.

On Thursday, my principal took me to meet the station commander at the closest police station then went to meet the chief! He was a very nice very old man. A lot of his council and some committee members came to greet me, which was both intimidating and touching. I went home for lunch when we returned then went back to the school and worked on the books for a while.

On Friday, I went into the school and mostly worked on the books all day, sorting and entering them into an excel spreadsheet. I got about 200 entered. I was asked to “teach” a class (read to them) because their teacher was proctoring for another grade’s big end of year exam. I read them “If You Give A Moose A Muffin” then gave them a writing prompt for them to write a few sentences about their family. I worked on library stuff some more then “knocked off” early to go meet the women at a local preschool to discuss continuing their computer lessons and to pick up my little brother. I dropped him off at our other brother’s car wash then went home to relax and take a shower before I went to sleep.

On Saturday, I went to my first South African funeral. There was a whole choir of ZCC women singing at the house of the man who had died. The funeral train made its way to the cemetery, where someone climbed down into the empty grave to spread a straw mat, then the coffin was lowered, then the men filled all the dirt back in. A grandmother then put some type of traditional bowl with antiseptic wash in it at the head of the grave along with flowers, a cup and saucer, and another bowl. After the funeral, I went into town to meet some friends and do some shopping. I had delicious pizza for lunch! The taxi ride home took FOREVER and was pretty scary considering I still sort of have whiplash from our driver slamming on the brakes.

On Sunday, I woke up and did my laundry by hand before just kind of hanging out for the rest of the day. My 4 year old brother tried to help when I was rinsing my clothes in the basin, which was adorable but really didn’t work that well. I baked bread for my family here and spoke to my parents in America as I do every Sunday at 8PM 🙂 It also FINALLY rained so I stood outside in it for a few minutes.

On Monday, I had an AWFUL migraine, so I didn’t go to school and just hung out around my house and slept most of the day.

On Tuesday, I went to school for a couple hours and got a lot of work on the library books done before I left for the Peace Corps principals’ workshop outside of Polokwane. After checking in at the lodge, I had the wonderful treat of eating McDonald’s before we started our sessions. After our sessions, I got to go swimming in the pool!!!!! Then we ate dinner and a bunch of us sat around using the free Wi-Fi. I even got decent enough service to video Skype with my friend in Kenya!!

On Wednesday, we had a few different sessions. We have been urged by Peace Corps to blog with caution, so I won’t get into that on here. When we finished, I got to go to Mall of the North with a few people. It was like a very very nice American mall. It was emotionally difficult to spend a few hours in first world territory then return to my village. One great thing that came out of the conference was that I got much closer with the teacher who attended with me. She shares a lot of the same views I have about corporal punishment and sexual abuse.

On Thursday, I arrived at school to find that all of my boxes of books had been moved around and the piles sorted by level that had already been entered in the spreadsheet had been thrown on top of and in other boxes. I couldn’t even do anything about it because there was a workshop going on in that room all day. The grade 7s didn’t have a teacher with them, so I went in and read a Berenstein Bears book to them before hanging out in the 6th grade class to give them a writing prompt and talk about listening. I went back in with the grade 7 learners because they were unsupervised and ended up teaching about oppression, critical thinking, and how critical thinking can be a tool to prevent and stop oppression. We also had a very enlightening crosscultural conversation. I stayed at school for a while after the learners left to mark the papers I had the 6th grade write, then went home and did more marking before going over to my friend’s house to help bake what were essentially sweet biscuits. When I got home, I found out about JK Rowling’s new movie series!!!!

On Friday, I went to school where we didn’t really do much of anything. I made a copy of three of my IDs and printed my resume because the secretary asked me to bring her my information so she could make me a file. My learners asked me on Thursday to wear my traditional dress, so I did and they LOVED that. I read a couple of books (in Sepedi) to a first grade class and talked to some of the teachers before we knocked off really early and I caught a ride into town with some of the teachers. Keep in mind that I wore traditional dress on Friday, so everyone in town was very very interested in me. I was greeted by so many people and several women even asked if they could take my picture. I had pizza for lunch before just kind of walking around town looking at different shops and buying a few things. When I walked out of one of the grocery stores, a gogo (grandmother) asked me to come talk to her and I stood there doing so for a few minutes before she grabbed my hand and dragged me into the liquor store where her son was working and introduced me. I was very glad all day that I had spent $8.00 on Ebay for a fake wedding ring and even more glad that my LCF taught me how to say “I’m married” “No thank you” and “I don’t want that” in Sepedi during Pre-Service Training. As per usual, I waited a long time for my taxi to fill up to go home. I was the very first person on the taxi and the last person off. When I got home, I took a 2.5 hour nap before going back to my friend’s house to see if she still needed help baking for the wedding we would attend on Saturday. She had already finished, so I FINALLY finished unpacking then watched HP1 before falling asleep.

On Saturday, I slept in! I woke up around 11:30 then left with my host mom to go to my niece’s/sister’s second birthday. We stopped several places along the way, mostly looking for green beans. The party was much farther from home than I realized and was therefore very far from the wedding I was supposed to attend, but it was nice to meet more family members and the kids seemed to really enjoy it. We left from there and stopped by the wedding reception for a little bit before returning home, where I cooked and ate dinner then watched movies.

On Sunday, I woke up, did my laundry, then walked down to my brother’s carwash to hang out with my twin 21 year old brothers for a while. I went back home and made chocolate chip cookies, then walked around for a while before my 23 year old brother surprised us all by coming home two days early. My four year old brother (actually my nephew) stayed with his sister and mother after the party, so my house seemed very quiet even though there were so many people. Another PCV arrived last night. He is staying with my family this week for a workshop that a local nonprofit is doing.


Week 9 and Settling In!

I realize that I have a whole week to blog about and no idea where my schedule from last week is at the moment.

We did sessions on our first week as teachers, medical stuff, and emotional health with the volunteer support network. On Thursday, a woman from the DOE came and spoke to us and I really liked her because she seemed like she has a really realistic view of the state of schools in South Africa. That night we did site announcements and had pizza to celebrate! I found out I would be replacing a volunteer who is from North Carolina in a village outside of Marble Hall and Globlersdal. One of our sessions last week included a lecture about not posting our exact location on the internet, so email me (pcvcottam@gmail.com) if you desperately want to know.

On Friday, I took my oath and swore in as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer! The country director was there, our LCFs were there, and we were fed a beautiful lunch. I have been waiting for that day for years and it was quite anticlimactic. Of course, its September, so I’m dealing with some cyclical mental health stuff and I was in a pretty awful mood for a lot of the day. I went to the local bar to say hey to a few PCVs for a little while, then went home. My friend, Jess, came over to get some of my movies on her external harddrive and I spent a lot of time packing. That night, my mother gave me gifts! I got a new pair of pajamas and a handmade rug crocheted by my gogo (grandmother) out of plastic bags. It is awesome and it is in my room right now!

On Saturday, I went to town to pick up a few things, mostly small gifts for my family. I hung out with Melissa for a while then we ate pizza and went our separate ways. My language group all got together for some cold drink to say goodbye to our LCF, then I went back home and made potato chips for my family.

On Sunday morning, Peace Corps picked us up and took us to the staff house in Mokopane to load all of our luggage. There was a pool! I was so upset that I spent nine weeks not knowing there was a pool nearby that we could have used! They took us back to the compound where we started our journey in South Africa. TK and Silence (our drivers) took us into Polokwane to do a little grocery shopping for the next few days. We spent one last night all together before parting ways.

On Monday, we were supposed to leave the compound at 8:30, but- you know- this is Peace Corps, so we didn’t. I told one of my friends I was going to lay back down and for her to make sure they didn’t leave me. I woke up a little before eleven completely alone and locked in the building. Luckily, the last group had just left about 5 minutes before, so they came back and picked me up. We went to a lodge in Polokwane where we met our principal(s), then ate lunch before getting into our principal’s car and making our way to our new homes.

My host family is AMAZING and I got a new name and a hug from my mother the moment I got out of the car. Nna ke (I am) Matshepo. 🙂 I ate dinner with my host mother and my adorable three year old “brother” (actually nephew). She served me beef liver, which I’m sure was expensive and is probably a big deal, but -SURPRISE- I didn’t like it. My father is a little quiet but super duper nice and good with the little one.

Today I went to my school to meet all of the teachers and be introduced to the learners. They are doing National Testing this week, so I didn’t hang out there for long before my aunt, who is also a teacher at the school, took me to show me my shopping towns. We went to Globlersdal and Marble Hall and visited the police stations in both, the post office in Marble Hall, and several stores at each. I got a two plate hotplate, food, a laundry basket, a fan, a set of plastic drawers, and a few other things. I even found Barefoot Moscato wine at Pick N Pay, which I am currently enjoying a glass of as I type. It was ridiculously hot today! I was exhausted and had a headache, so I napped for a while before making myself a sandwich and doing my dishes.

I met the oldest of my three brothers tonight and he seems awesome, too. The brother I met tonight is the oldest, but he is my younger brother. There are also twin boys who are the youngest, but I haven’t met them yet. My mother bought a “Welcome to the family” cake for us to share and told me that her sons have never had a sister and God must have answered her prayers. She said I must be an angel to them and help them know right from wrong. No pressure 😉 Tomorrow there are about a million things for me to do, so it is bedtime! Thanks for reading!

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Packing for 27 Months of Peace Corps Service

Special Greetings to SA29! We are all so excited to meet you!!!

First thing’s first: I am part of a cohort of 36 people and I’m sure each one of us would give you very different packing advice. Following is what I wish I had known/listened to before I came to South Africa.

When PC told us to pack things in a nonessential for PST (pre service training) vs. Essential for PST fashion, I was frustrated. How on earth was I supposed to know which items were essential for our training period and which weren’t in a completely new and confusing situation?

We were also told to dress business casual in colors that wouldn’t show dirt, but that hasn’t played out either. Hardly anything I thought was essential actually was and a lot of what is stored in my nonessential bag I really wish I had with me. I would like to note that this advice is definitely geared towards women. Sorry gentleman!

Here are some things I wish I knew or paid attention to before I packed:

Pack cute clothes that you already wear.
There is absolutely no need to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe and you are better off saving your American money and buying clothes here where you will get more bang for your buck anyway. If you usually wear lots of skirts- pack lots of your skirts. (Cultural note on that- your knees shouldn’t show, so also pack leggings or tights if your skirts are on the short side). If you usually wear slacks- pack slacks. Trust me when I say we aren’t on a safari here. If you think your pink skinny jeans are too bright for South Africa- think again. Color blocking is a big thing here and there is no such thing as too bright. I sincerely wish I had brought my bright pink Old Navy skinny jeans, in case you couldn’t tell. You will be expected to dress business casual Mondays-Thursdays, so make sure you pack appropriately for that. The next group will be arriving in January- which is going to be summer here and it will be miserably hot. Try to stick with light flowing clothing that still covers all of your body parts. During the winter it gets very cold at night and can be chilly during the day. It’s spring now and its mostly really hot during the day but cools down some at night. On the weekends, you are allowed to wear jeans. I made the mistake of only packing one pair in my essentials. Eix!

In terms of shoes:
I only had two pairs of tevas- one brown and one black, a pair of cheap Old Navy flip flops, and a pair of tennis shoes packed in my essentials bag. Pack cute flats or dress shoes. I had to buy a pair when I got here and I could still use several more pairs of flats. If you are feeling ambitious, bring maybe one pair of heels. Personally, I would break an ankle if I wore heels here because I spend so much time walking on rocky paths. Brown shoes are a plus here because they don’t show the dirt as badly and the South Africans I have met really have a thing about clean shoes.

Pack things that comfort you in your essentials bag.
I have many books and movies in South Africa, but most of them are in storage in my nonessential bag. I’m itching to get my Harry Potter DVDs back. I recommend you pack some of your favorite American candy and your favorite DVDs in your essentials bag. You can certainly survive without them, but they make the hard days so much easier- and there will be hard days. One of my better choices was packing a Bath and Body Works sweet cinnamon pumpkin candle. I also packed my twin sized down comforter in one of those vacuum sealed bags and my own pillow from home. Most airlines don’t count a pillow as an extra item, which I was very glad to learn and take advantage of.

You can buy almost anything you need in South Africa, but there are a few things you may want that I haven’t been able to find here yet: a garlic press, kool aid packets, dry ranch dressing packets, and instant macaroni and cheese. Maybe none of those things are important to you, but there are some days when I want something that is familiar.

One thing I really really suggest doing is having your friends and family members each write you a letter for a hard day- and don’t kid yourself, there will be many hard days. Peace Corps can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride. My first night in my homestay was sssooooo hard, but I adore my host family now and wouldn’t trade them for anything. Your cohort will become like your family. I love my cohort, but sometimes it is nice to be able to open a note from a friend or family member and remember that there are people out there who love and TRULY get me.

Please please PLEASE do not go out and buy a whole new wardrobe for your Peace Corps service. Bring cute clothes you already have! Save the money you would have spent on clothes in America and use that money to buy clothes here.

I do not recommend that you buy a new cell phone in America for your service. I was given a really nice blackberry in the States and it won’t work for data because it is CDMA capable. Some people here have had success getting their iphones to work. I spent 200USD on a blackberry here and I pay R59 a month for UNLIMITED data. That’s a little less than $6 per month. I was able to get mine fairly early in PST, but they also gave us a cheap Nokia to use in case of emergencies that we will be returning to them this weekend.

You really do need to be able to carry all of your own stuff, so don’t pack a bunch of extra stuff you won’t use. Pack enough clothing in your essentials bag for a different outfit every day for two weeks. If you wear something twice without washing it, the LCFs (language teachers) may tease you.

Sooooooo here are my personal suggestions based on my experience:

Essentials Bag:
7 tops and 7 bottoms that can more or less be mixed and matched.( I would actually recommend bringing at least 10 of each, but I’m very aware of the space and weight limits)
7 pairs of underwear
2 sports bras
3+ regular bras
1 nice bra (for those days you just need to feel pretty)
Rain jacket
Feminine Hygiene supplies (I love my Diva Cup)
3 month supply of medications
Fake wedding ring (I got mine on ebay for $8 and it has been soooo helpful)
Nice sweater (no hoodies allowed on training days)
2 pairs of closed toed dressier shoes (1 brown and 1 black)
1 pair of flipflops
1 pair of sneakers
External harddrive! (trust me- you will want this. Load half of it up with movies you love/ new movies prior to leaving America and remember- sharing is caring!!!
Pictures from home (maybe in an album)
Your favorite scented candle
Your favorite book.

Non-essentials bag:
Off season clothing
A nice heavy jacket
A hat
An extra pair of glasses
Swimsuit for vacation
Nice little gifts for yourself for when you finally get your bag back.
Personally, I love to knit, so I wish I had put nice American yarn
Several seed packets to plant when you get to permanent site.

I’m sure there is so much else I’m sure I’m not thinking of right now, but I get my nonessential bag back this weekend, so I will have more info then!

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