PCV, Peace Corps

My Peace Corps Story

I recently learned that there is a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) Portal on the Peace Corps website and that there is a place for Returned Volunteers to share their stories about what service was like for them.  This is what I wrote:

My name is Catherine, I’m from Asheville, North Carolina, and I arrived in South Africa to serve in the Peace Corps as an education volunteer on July 4, 2013.  My story is not the typical Peace Corps story as I did not complete all twenty-seven months of my service.  In fact, I only completed five months of service before I was medically evacuated and seven months of service total before I was medically separated from the Peace Corps.  I would describe how I felt when I arrived in South Africa as furiously happy.  I had never felt more alive or more passionate in my life.  I was finally living my dream of helping other people and truly making a difference.  I didn’t feel homesick, but I did feel something else that I still can’t quite put my finger on and have never felt since.  Everything was new and different.  There was no one I had known for any length of time with me.  I was completely and totally out of my comfort zone.  I had traveled to Kenya by myself once before, but it was only for two weeks.  Knowing that I would be in South Africa for twenty-seven months made this feeling entirely different.  I imagine there aren’t a ton of people outside of Peace Corps Volunteers and RPCVs who understand the feeling of being thousands of miles away from home with no access to your family, support system, or existing friends and knowing that you have to adapt and make new friends and create a new support system.

I was mentally ill before the Peace Corps, but I was stable on a medication regimen I had been on for a while.  I had suffered from depression and anxiety for over a decade by the time I left for service with it sometimes being under control and sometimes being at the forefront of my life.  I became depressed not too long after arriving in country, maybe a month later.  I expressed suicidal thoughts to a close PCV friend who was adamant that I contact the PCMO, but at the time I refused.  They were nothing I hadn’t dealt with successfully a hundred times before and I was terrified I would be sent home.  Some days I would do ok, but other days I was so depressed that getting out of bed felt like a monumental chore.  During PST it wasn’t as bad, but once I got to permanent site, the depression set in like a black dog laying on my chest.

My favorite memory of Peace Corps happened during PST.  I decided to go on a walk through my village one day and I ran into some children playing in the street.  They asked what I was doing and I explained that I was going on a walk.  They asked if they could come with me and I told them that it would be great if they wanted to come.  A few children quickly became four which quickly became six which, by the middle of our walk, became something like twelve children walking through the streets of my village with me with all of us singing and dancing, primarily to the Sepedi version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”  The experience was pure joy.  The children were so happy to be playing, singing, dancing, and laughing with me and I was so grateful to them for sharing their time with me and making me feel like I belonged in their home.  My host family during PST was equally amazing, laughing with me, letting me help cook, making me delicious fat cakes, and treating me like a real member of the family.

I don’t really have any proudest achievement from serving in the Peace Corps because I didn’t really achieve anything while I was there aside from lasting five months before finally caving and going home.  I helped partially set up a library in my school, but it was with books the previous PCV had gotten donated.  I was supposed to start helping the ladies that ran a bakery in my village, but I got pulled into Pretoria by medical before that could happen.  I guess the thing I’m most proud of is that I gained the trust of many of my students and helped them to understand that there are adults out there who care about them and won’t just use them to get chores done.  In my village, I saw a lot of children (and women) being treated very poorly and it was very frustrating to me.  I wasn’t always the most kind or the best friend I could be to my fellow PCVs (I think the mental illness had a lot to do with that), but I worked hard to treat people I encountered in my village well.  The children knew that they could talk to me about anything and I would treat them with respect and I am very proud of that fact.  In return, I was honest with them and did my best to describe my experience of depression to them.

My permanent host family was great, but I don’t think they were quite sure what to do with the depressed and confused American girl who showed up on their doorstep and wanted to be left alone all the time.  All I wanted to do was be alone in my house binge watching Breaking Bad or talking to my American family and friends.  I feel very badly about not becoming more involved with my host family and I feel as though I disappointed them or let them down somehow by not being well enough to fully integrate the way their previous Peace Corps Volunteer had.  I think it’s worth noting at some point during this story that, by Peace Corps standards, I was sexually assaulted twice during my stay in South Africa with a third event that was questionable but undoubtedly uncomfortable.  One time a stranger grabbed my butt, one time a stranger grabbed my hand and kissed it repeatedly while asking me to marry him and wouldn’t let me take my hand away, and one time the Vice Principal of my school did something during a handshake that meant something very dirty and inappropriate.  The PCV who had previously been at my site had been male and, to my knowledge, was not exposed to the sexual harassment and assaults that I was while visiting another PCV in his village, in my community, and in my school.  Peace Corps service as a young female is very different than Peace Corps service as a male or as an older woman.  Or at least it was in South Africa.

The same friend who tried to get me to call the PCMO back in August or September finally convinced me that I really needed to and on October 20, 2013, I called the Peace Corps Medical Office to explain to them that I was terribly depressed and having suicidal ideation and that it had been going on for a few months.  Peace Corps Medical told me to pack a bag and make my way to Pretoria that very day, which was good because I had been missing school and going in late because I just couldn’t face leaving my little house. While there were many wonderful and beautiful moments of Peace Corps service, the truth is that every PCV I talked to before I left for Peace Corps service was right when they told me it would be a huge roller coaster ride.  Anyway, getting to the Peace Corps Headquarters was a trial in and of itself because I couldn’t get the taxi I had paid to take me there to take me there even though it was only a few blocks away.  I eventually got there but my appointment with the psychologist had to be pushed to the next day.

I stayed in Pretoria for a month, seeing the psychologist very frequently and eventually seeing a psychiatrist who changed my medication from Celexa, an antidepressant which was obviously no longer working, to Cymbalta, a different antidepressant that I had never tried before.  Over the course of the next week or two, I became incredibly irritable.  I was staying at a hostel with other PCVs who very kindly kept inviting me to go do things with them, but all I wanted to do was binge read books on my Nook all night and sleep for part of the day.  They were all trying to be nice to me and I was largely a jerk back if memory serves correctly.  I was hypomanic, but I didn’t know it.  Eventually, I found out a large group of children was going to be coming to the hostel.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle being around them in my state and requested that the Peace Corps move me somewhere else to stay.  They agreed that I could move to a bed and breakfast with one other PCV.

That day I swam and laughed and socialized with the owners of the B&B for hours.  They were lovely hosts and I found everything they had to say so interesting.  That night, I started three new “30 day challenges,” took a shower at 3AM, sang and danced around my room, and only slept for an hour before waking up feeling wide awake for my medical appointment with Peace Corps that morning.  I couldn’t stop moving or talking.  When I arrived at Peace Corps Headquarters, I found out my appointment had been moved to that afternoon, which was bad because I already knew by then that I was manic, which meant that my diagnosis had changed from Major Depressive Disorder to Bipolar Disorder.  I took Ativan (which was prescribed to me to use as needed) to try to calm myself down, but I could not physically stop moving or talking.  The other people I saw that day could hardly get a word in edgewise and I really hope they know and understand that I wasn’t myself at all that day.

I saw the PCMO that afternoon and he agreed that I was manic, which led to a whole string of phone calls to headquarters in Washington, D.C. and my parents back in Asheville, NC to decide what would be the best treatment option for me.  I was told that I could go to an inpatient unit in Washington, D.C. or go back to my home of record to see my Primary Care Physician.  I earned my M.A.Ed. in School Counseling and my B.S. in Psychology before leaving for the Peace Corps, so I knew that I could not be forced to go inpatient as I was not a danger to myself or other people and I said as much to the PCMO.  I spent the next two nights at the PCMO’s house while Peace Corps drove a friend to my house to gather some of my things.  I was not allowed to go pack them myself and I was not allowed to go say goodbye to my host family.  Those are the only ways in which I feel the Peace Corps handled the situation poorly.  Otherwise, they were very on top of things and took excellent care of me.  A PCMO from a different country flew in to South Africa with one of their PCVs and she volunteered or was asked (I’m not entirely sure) to escort me back to my home in Asheville, NC.  At the time I was a little resentful of having a babysitter, but in retrospect it was good to not be all alone in a foreign country while having my first manic episode.

After arriving back home in Asheville, I saw my primary care physician who referred me to an Intensive Outpatient Program for people with Mood Disorders.  I was in the program for probably four months and went to group therapy three hours a day for three days a week.  It was in this program that my therapist and doctor suggested I get a dog for emotional support, which I happily did.  River, an Airedale Terrier, gave me a reason to get out of bed when I couldn’t fathom moving an inch and gave me a reason to keep going when all I wanted to do was give up and die.  For two and a half years, I cycled between mania, depression, and mixed episodes frequently and viciously.  I thought I would never get a break from the illness, but I finally did when a friend of mine and I decided to visit the UK for two and a half weeks in September of 2015.  The first morning I woke up in London, I felt like myself for the first time since my first month in South Africa.  This mental stability would last for some months, but unfortunately I developed a blood clot on the flight back home and had a pulmonary embolism a few days after arriving and was therefore mostly bedridden for several months due to the pain in my leg.  When the pain in my leg finally started to abate, I started having symptoms of mania again but the psychiatric nurse practitioner I was seeing insisted that I was just anxious.  I ended up in the hospital for a week a couple of months later after behaving out of character, acting recklessly, and spending money like it was going out of style.  When I got out of the hospital, I began a different Intensive Outpatient Program at the hospital where I’d been most recently treated and my doctors, therapists, and I decided that it would be a good idea to train my dog as a psychiatric service dog.

Because of my illness, I have not had a career path post Peace Corps.  Since I developed my illness while serving in the Peace Corps, my medical expenses related to my Bipolar Diagnosis are covered by the Department of Labor and I receive a monthly stipend as I am unable to work.  I have compiled over 50,000 words worth of my journals and blog entries and hope to turn it into a memoir to help other people with my illness.  Writing is helpful for me and it’s something I can do without leaving my bed on the days I feel super depressed.  I’ve also written three (as yet unpublished and unillustrated) children’s books about my service dog, River.  It is my hope that I can find a way to make a small difference in someone’s life, since I wasn’t able to spend the full 27 months in the Peace Corps and make a difference that way.  I was medically evacuated about five months from the date I arrived in South Africa and I was medically separated about two months after that.

Serving in the Peace Corps is beautiful and wonderful and strange and hard and the most fun and most difficult thing anyone could choose to do with twenty-seven months of their life.  Or at least, I assume so, only having spent five months of my own life doing it.  Other Americans should join the Peace Corps because it is an experience unlike any other and has the potential to bring so much joy (along with the frustration, of course).  If someone is interested in making a difference in someone else’s life or in learning about another culture or in learning another language, there is no way as immersive and as rewarding as serving in the United States Peace Corps.

Adventure, PCV, Peace Corps

Parenting Yourself in Isolation- A Self-Care Workshop for Peace Corps Volunteers



Parenting Yourself in Isolation: A Peace Corps Self-Care Workshop

My Peace Corps blog posts often still get the most traffic even though they were written a few years ago now, so I thought I would share these documents via my blog in case anyone in the Peace Corps runs across them and wishes to use them.  The last elective I took to earn my M.A.Ed. in School Counseling was a class about Parenting Education.  For our main project, we were required to create a workshop for parents.  Since I would be leaving two weeks after graduation to serve in the Peace Corps in South Africa, my professor very kindly allowed me to create a different kind of workshop for Peace Corps Volunteers.  I call it Parenting Yourself In Isolation: A Workshop on Self-Care for Peace Corps Volunteers.  I feel that I would have benefited from this or a similar workshop during my time in the Peace Corps, so even if you don’t get to do it as a group, perhaps you could do the parts that you are able to do by yourself or even just read through it.  If you have been accepted to the Peace Corps but haven’t left yet, you may wish to put this on your flash drive or external hard drive that I suggest you take with you.  I do request that you leave my name on the document and credit me properly when utilizing these tools.  If you’re looking for easy ways to practice self-care, most of which are feasible even while serving in the Peace Corps, I suggest you also check out my blog post at Illuminated By U, 50 Ways to Practice Self-Care.

Good luck during your service and I hope this helps!

Adventure, PCV

What Medical Separation Means to Me

It’s been heavy on my heart all day that I need want to post an update.  I never made time for it, but the time was made tonight anyhow.  I was just getting ready to shut my computer off for the night and lay down to go to sleep when my precious little Valentine, River,River snow


woke from her slumber and proceeded to throw up all over our bed.  Rest assured: the bedding was taken off and thrown in the wash and new bedding was promptly put back on.  She is snoozing away on my foot now.  It’s clear to me that River knows the REAL meaning of Valentine’s day –> Loving someone so much you don’t even mind cleaning up their puke.

I’ve gotten a few e-mails from people about my blog and a few e-mails from peace corps friends unrelated to my blog.  I haven’t responded to any of them, really.  I apologize for that, but things are just sort of a struggle right now.  I can’t remember the last time I posted (memory issues are a side of one of my meds and I’m too lazy to go look it up) but as is obvious by the fact I got a puppy, I will not be returning to South Africa.  I was officially medically separated on January 4, 2014 and am working on getting all of my Peace Corps doctors appointments taken care of.

Speaking with Peace Corps staff has been really helpful to me in terms of dealing with the enormous guilt of not making it for 27 months.  I was SO SURE that Peace Corps was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.  And it was, just not the way I thought it was.  Looking back now, I can identify that there were only a handful of days where I really even behaved remotely closely to myself.

It was a good learning experience, It broadened my worldview further, and it forced me to get the help that I so desperately needed.  Now, Asheville is a small town, so I’m not going to post too many details about the medical condition that got me medevaced and medically separated on here because there’s a whole lot of stigma that goes with any and all mental illness.  If you are curious, want to talk about it, or just want to know, there is no shame in you sending me an e-mail and asking what the details of that medical separation were.  I will most likely eventually start some type of anonymous blog about that at some point.  cdcottam1@gmail.com is the best way to reach me as it goes straight to my iPhone.  I can’t promise that I’ll get back to you in a timely fashion, but I do promise that I will get back to you.

To me, being medically separated from Peace Corps Means:

  • I got to get a beautiful, intelligent, amazing Airedale Terrier puppy
  • I get to live at home while I figure things out for a while
  • I get to be close to my support system when I need them the most
  • I get to see my parents every single day
  • I get to drive myself to and from the grocery and doctor’s appointments
  • I get to see my friends
  • I get to eat the foods I like
  • I’m getting the help I need
  • I get to bake at least once a week

But it also means:

  • I’m missing out on many months of my commitment for service
  • I’m missing out on Tlotlego’s first year at primary school
  • I missed out on the twins’ 21st birthday
  • I’m missing out on making a positive difference in my small South African community


There are many more, but here’s the other thing about me right now.  I’m not sure if it’s a side effect from the medication or a symptom of my illness itself, but I am tired CONSTANTLY.  I never feel like I have enough energy to get anything done and there have been a couple things that have happened over the past few days that were very anxiety provoking, which has made me exhausted by the time I get settled in my room and calmed down from the anxiety.  I love and care about all you people out there, but it’s time for some rest now.





PCV Blues

Holy cow! It’s been a month since I blogged. I apologize for that dear readers. A lot has happened in the past month. This post will be very candid, so prepare yourselves.

Right now, I am away from site in the city where the Peace Corps office is located. As many of you already know, I have Major Depressive Disorder, which means that even in America where I have constant access to my friends and family, things get really tough. When you couple the depression with all of the extreme changes I have been going through, the loss of one of my learners this week, and frustrations with my colleagues, it seems logical that what started out as a normal (shitty, but bearable) depressive episode has turned into a nightmare. I thought I was on the upswing last week, but I just can’t seem to shake this thing on my own right now. The Peace Corps medical team’s response, one amazing lady in particular, has been phenomenal. I told her about my struggle last night and within 24 hours I was in the city with an appointment to see the psychologist. Unfortunately, that appointment was cancelled, but I will be going in at 4 tomorrow then will follow up with our medical team the next morning.

I really thought I was handling things pretty well and wasn’t sure I needed to see the psychologist until today when I broke down sobbing on a taxi. I was trying to get to the Peace Corps office and the driver I was with insisted that the street I told him was located outside of the area of town I told him it was in. I paid him early on in the trip, as is customary. He passed where I needed to go. When we pulled over I showed him google maps and said that we had passed where I needed to go. He told me I needed to get out and take a different taxi. I told him I had already paid him and that I expected him to take me back. An hour later after he passed where I needed to go without stopping AGAIN, I got off at the first possible stop. I talked to one of the taxi guys, told him what had happened, and reiterated the address of where I needed to be and the fact that I needed to get there in 30 minutes. He told me to get into a certain taxi, at which point I told him I wasn’t ready to get in yet because I just wanted to confirm that he knew exactly where I was wanting to go and that I would be there in 30 minutes or less. Google maps said it was a 4 minute drive, so I figured we would be there in about 15-20 minutes. The taxi filled up and a woman asked where I was going. I told her and she said “oh, he will have to bring you back after we go into the city.” At which point giant crocodile tears started rolling down my face before I hid my face in my bag and started sobbing. At that moment, I wanted NOTHING more than to be back at my house in America hugging my mom and dad. I had been in contact with the medical staff during the previous taxi ride and told them what was going on, but by this point my phone was dead. I eventually got to where I needed to go (LATE of course) and it started raining. The PC driver came into the medical office to help me to the car and I can’t even remember the last time I was so happy to even just see a familiar face. We got almost all the way to my appointment when PC called and said my appointment had been rescheduled for the next day. The driver brought me to the backpackers, where I found some other PCVs, wifi, a pool, and a wood fired pizza oven. I immediately got online to start some downloads and eventually ate pizza. While I was eating, some friends of the owner came in and brought their 8 week old Jack Russell Terrier mix puppy, who let me hold her and licked me and made me feel better about life.

I am completely exhausted now. I know there is a light at the end of this tunnel and I know I will be fine, but people weren’t kidding when they said PC is an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve been told that the first three months are the hardest and that after this it will get easier. Re tlo bona.

Needless to say, emails, calls, letters, and instant messages of encouraging words would be greatly appreciated right now. I know that I will be ok, but it’s so different for me not to have my old support network. I love you guys and miss you.

Posted from WordPress for BlackBerry.


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!

Posted from WordPress for BlackBerry.


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!

Posted from WordPress for BlackBerry.


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!

Posted from WordPress for BlackBerry.


Week 7

On Wednesday, 21 August 2013, my language lesson included learning interrogatives such as why, which, and how. Last week the language groups switched LCFs (language teachers) and Kgaugelo taught our classes all week. After language, we had a lesson on writing and presenting then had time for lesson planning before I was the supporting teacher for Darren’s lesson on reading and viewing.

On Thursday, we studied a revision of expressing health status in language class before we had a session on speaking them time to lesson plan for the next day. I taught the lesson on writing and presenting, which didn’t go as well as my lesson on listening, but it went ok.

On Friday, we had mini LPIs in language class. LPI means language proficiency interview. I felt really good about how I did this time, which was a definite departure from our midterm. We then went to our village hub in Magongoa, where we met up with the PCTs who live in Mosesetjane to have a lesson on Multi-Grade teaching before our weekly village debrief. I got home and made delicious chocolate peanutbutter oatmeal no bake cookies then my language group came over to bake bread and cookies.

Saturday has it’s own post titled Jozi Fieldtrip.

On Sunday, I left my house at about 6:45AM to make my way to town. My dog friend, Tiger, walked me all the way from his home at the tuck shop to the taxi rank, which made me feel good. I got to town and got money at the atm, then sat and waited with a nice security guard named William while I waited for Melissa and Lizzy to arrive and for the cafe we like to go to, Maxi’s, to open. A good deal of our conversation was in Sepedi and several people stopped to listen and to talk with me. At Maxi’s, I got breakfast on toast, which was delicious. I also went to the book store to search for a copy of Long Walk to Freedom in Sepedi, but they didn’t have it. They did, however, have the Oxford Sepedi dictionary that I have been searching for for weeks. I also went to Game (owned by Walmart) and bought a kettle, utensils, and measuring cups for my upcoming move to permanent site. I bought four new tshirts at Jet because I have plenty of skirts, but not enough shirts to go more than six or so days without doing laundry. They were about R29 a piece, which means they were about $3 a piece. I went to the bookstore again with Lizzy and Melissa then went to checkers to get juice concentrate, chocolate, and brown sugar. We went to the Shoprite parking lot, where we caught a taxi to Mosesetjane for a party thrown by another PCT. PC transport took us home around 5 and I hung out, took a bath, and ate some dinner before talking to my brother and parents for a while then going to sleep.

Today, Monday, 26 August 2013, we didn’t start sessions until about 9:30, but I forgot that was happening so I got up at my usual time anyway. We had a debrief about our visit to the apartheid museum and several PC staff members shared very personal experiences. After the debrief, we had a session with Monica (a PCV) about language structures and conventions before having lunch, lesson planning for tomorrow, and walking over to the primary school for Darren to give his lesson on speaking. Afterwards, I went to the tuck shop and pet Tiger for a while before walking home. Once I got here, I started writing this blog post, which has taken a long time 🙂


Week 8

I can’t sleep, so I might as well blog.

On Monday, 26 August 2013, we didn’t start sessions until about 9:30, but I forgot that was happening so I got up at my usual time anyway. We had a debrief about our visit to the apartheid museum and several PC staff members shared very personal experiences. After the debrief, we had a session with Monica (a PCV) about language structures and conventions before having lunch, lesson planning for Tuesday, and walking over to the primary school for Darren to give his lesson on speaking. Afterwards, I went to the tuck shop and pet Tiger for a while before walking home.

On Tuesday, we had language class then a session on vocabulary before preparation and lesson planning then after-school club. Our assignment was to teach something related to language structures and conventions, so I taught a lesson about personal pronouns and conjugating the verb “to be.” I wasn’t able to make the lesson as fun as I would have liked, so I wasn’t as pleased with it as I could have been.

On Wednesday we all dressed very nicely because the Limpopo Province Department of Education’s Curriculum Advisor was coming to speak with us. We played a language game in groups then learned about students with special needs and marginalized learners. We took a large group photo of all of SA28: PCTs, LCFs, and Peace Corps Staff. The curriculum advisor was amazing and it was very clear to me that she has a realistic view of how the schools are operating. We talked about how the National Curriculum isn’t really realistic for learners in this province and she urged us to focus on helping the learners read and speak. Darren taught a lesson on vocab that day in after-school club that our learners seemed to really enjoy.

On Thursday, we had language class and reviewed some useful phrases before sessions about libraries and IT in the classroom. It was graduation day for our after-school club and that went very well. We gave each of our learners a certificate for completing the program before we played simon says and had a race. Darren and I received two very sweet cards (which reminds me I need to give one of them back to him) and several of the learners expressed their gratitude and asked if we could come back. One of the learners in particular, a fifteen year old girl, pulled me aside and told me that she loves me and she will really miss me. My heart was definitely touched.

On Friday, Kgabo came to our language session to help us with adjectives. We then traveled to our village hub, where we took a kind of final exam for PST on all of the technical sessions we have had. Our Country Director, John Jacoby, came and spoke to us and told us that the schedule for the coming week has changed completely because we are swearing in early!!! We found out that our Language Proficiency Interviews have been moved to Tuesday and Wednesday, we will get our permanent site announcements on Thursday, and we will swear in on Friday before having Saturday to pack then leaving Sunday afternoon to go back to our first training site for the night. Which means we get to take showers!!! On Monday we will meet our principals and move to our permanent sites, which is bittersweet for me because I will really miss my host family and being able to see my friends whenever I want. We then did our LAST weekly debrief and I am so glad to be finished with those. They inevitably turn into a bitchfest where people invalidate others’ feelings, which is really hard for me even when I’m not the person it is happening to. Laura and I went into town to get some pictures printed out and a gift for our LCF. We met Lizzy there and hung out for a while before starting the journey to the cow slaughter, which we missed. I was really bummed that I didn’t get to see how they butchered the meat, but I’m sure I will have other opportunities. Laura and I caught a taxi into Mahwelereng where we waited at a gas station for Peace Corps to come pick us up. While we were there a car backfired several times and I was really scared because I thought we were being shot at. Once the car turned around, I realized that there were flames coming out of the exhaust pipe. When I asked a guy standing near me, he said the owner of the car had made it do that on purpose. PC picked us up and took me to Mokopane College, where I chopped some squash for the family function on Sunday. We then all went to the house of a cousin of one of my favorite staff members, Mr. Baker, and we had a braii (the South African version of a BBQ) where they cooked us some of the cow they had slaughtered a few hours before. It was a lot of fun to sit around the fire and hang out with people.

Saturday was a big day for a lot of reasons. Last week, our village Induna was hit by a car and killed. The Induna is what you think of as a village chief, but that isn’t exactly how it works here. Each village has an Induna and each Induna reports back to the Chief, who is typically responsible for a few different villages. The death of our Induna was made even more sad by the knowledge that he had just buried his son the previous Saturday. I wanted to go to the funeral but I didn’t want to go alone and I wasn’t really dedicated enough to wake up early. My mom ended up going, so I thought she wouldn’t be coming to the family function and I was very sad. My sister told me she was staying home because she was sick, and I went to the pick up point to wait with ten other people for Peace Corps to pick us up. The transport was late because they had to pick up so many people and we ended up cramming over 20 people into a 14 passenger van. The family function was beautiful and very fun. A few groups of traditional dancers performed and our LCFs sang us some beautiful songs. Nicole and Amanda gave a speech to our families on behalf of SA28, Nicole in Sepedi and Amanda in English. We each got to present our host family with a certificate of appreciation before serving food to all of the family members. Our LCFs barely got any sleep the night before since they were with us at the cookout until quite late then they all had to be at the college crazy early to help prepare. Melissa and Lizzy came to spend the night last night and we met up with some other people to go to another braii/party for the grand opening of a car wash in zone one. I woke up today with my first South African hangover and I can safely say that being hungover here is worse than in the States.

Today, Melissa, Lizzy, and I woke up and hung out until my host sister got home from church, then the four of us traveled to town together to eat at Maxi’s. Some of the girls needed to buy things, so we went to Game (which is owned by Walmart) before parting ways. My sister and I picked up pizza for dinner tonight then came home. You know you are hungover when you are able to sleep in a ridiculously hot and crowded South African taxi. When we got home I took a nap then went on a walk before eating pizza and talking to my parents on the phone. Afterwards, I did dishes then started writing this post!

Thank you to everyone who has been a part of my amazing support system!