Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bane of My Existence: World Map Project

Not long before I left for Pretoria for MST, I started working on the World Map Project at my site. I started by blocking out a 2 meter by 4 meter rectangle on the south exterior wall of the school library. I put up some masking tape and called it day one. Day two involved slapping up a ton of blue paint on a very uneven, two-tone surface with the help of a few primary school learners. That was the beginning of the end. We ran out of blue paint, for starters. Anyways, day 3 involved making a grid out of Bostik and dental floss. Each square is 7 cm by 7 cm. That worked out pretty well, but the wind was a tough adversary. Finally another volunteer arrived to help me draw in the countries in each box. We went through several pencils and plenty of erasers in about 18 hours of work. Then we left for training.

All this brings me up to today, when I began painting. It started out well, but rapidly devolved into chaos. The learners helping me managed to paint Greenland as part of Canada and lose the Gulf entirely to Saudi Arabia, among a multitude of smaller incidents. Recall that I'm out of blue paint. It's hot, frustrating and tiring work. I can't wait to be done soon!

For all of its faults up close, the map looks great from a distance!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Surprising Honesty

Crime in South Africa is part of daily life. "Have you been mugged yet?" is a common question to new volunteers. When I told a local resident that I had been robbed within three weeks of arriving in country, his response was, "Well, you've received a traditional South African welcome."

Due to the high crime rate, most people keep their money and valuables well hidden at all times. The one exception to this is when traveling on taxis. Sometimes passengers pre-pay the driver. This is common when traveling a long distance. Occasionally passengers pay the driver when they arrive at their destination, as I do when going to my shopping town, but most frequently passengers begin rummaging for money when the taxi hits the road. Whatever money they have, passengers pass up to the people sitting next to the driver, who count the money and determine how much change to send back. This money is passed through the taxi and delivered to those to whom it is owed. This system works marvelously well. For a country where theft is routine, it will never cease to amaze me that total strangers on taxis trust each other so completely that they have no problem handing over great wads of money and expecting exact change. Perhaps being in such close quarters encourages honesty. Whatever it is, it is a refreshing change.


This week I am in Pretoria for mid-service training and medical appointments. Instead of staying within the city limits as I normally do, I'm visiting volunteers at a nearby site. Late last night, after dinner, we decided a little evening entertainment was in order. The first suggestion was a movie, the next was cards. I am not a huge fan of card games, so I was hesitant, but when D mentioned three-person solitaire, I was thrilled! Most people I meet have never heard of multi-player solitaire. It is, after all, quite the oxymoron, but, as in the Sullivan family, it turned out to be a DJ family tradition. We played several rounds, and I am proud to say I emerged victorious (albeit by a slim margin). Hope we play again soon!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Most Importantly...

I forgot the most important event of yesterday. It was the one-year anniversary of Z and I shaving our heads! As much as I enjoyed having no hair, it's nice to have back again. My hair now is the longest it's ever been in Africa, which isn't saying too much. I thought that washing it would be a pain, but in reality I just keep it tied back and away from my face. I'm pretty lazy when it comes to hair washing. You would be to if washing your hair meant crouching over a bucket and swirling your head around in a bucket half-full of questionable water. It's gross, like so many activities here. You should see the water I wash my dishes in...

Just now I'm waiting for another volunteer to come for a visit. We're going to work on a project at my site before heading off to Mid-Service Training in Pretoria next week. The fun never stops in Peace Corps!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Half Circle

My official Close of Service (COS) date is the 16th of September, 2011. As today is the 16th of September 2010, this marks the beginning of the end. I will not spend another 16th of September in South Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. This is it. It's the final countdown. Less than a year to go!

Also today, the latest class of volunteers is swearing in. I feel for them. Swearing-in was an absolutely terrifying day for me. The last thing I remember before being separated from all the other volunteers and being herded into the Northern Cape group was another volunteer turning me and saying, "I am so not ready for this." You never are. Still, I wish them all the best at their sites.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Alternative Reading

I am a terrible blogger. I rarely update. My posts lack focus and proper attention to detail. They are all about me and offer little general information about South Africa or the Peace Corps. Frankly I'm surprised that people keep reading, but thank you. I appreciate having an audience as opposed to being a cyberspace pariah.

In any case, I'd like to direct you to a few blogs that I read routinely and think you might enjoy.

First up we have Ryan of Ryan's blog is well-written, insightful and often amusing. The topics covered by his blog include dubious construction projects and musings on everything from HIV to inflation. Photos and other graphics provide visual interest that is far, far more stimulating than the walls of text you'll find here. (And yes, if you read the post "And Then There Were Two," I am now his nearest volunteer. Go Moshaweng!)

Next I am pleased to introduce Karen. She was in my language group during training and her blog is every bit as fun and thoughtful as she is. Her focus is usually the day-to-day activities that make up a volunteer's world. She is a prolific poster of pictures that capture everything from the beauty of space heaters to soy products (things that volunteers truly appreciate). Check her out at

Finally, we have Gabi of Like mine, her blog is light on pictures, but high on perspective. She lives very far from me and so her experiences are quite often very different. It's good for comparison. Also, funny and/or horrifying things have a way of happening to her and reading about them is entertaining.

Of course there are tons of other Peace Corps South Africa blogs out there, many of which I peruse and enjoy. These are just a few to which I am particularly attached. Happy reading!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I did a very mean thing today. I'm not happy about doing it, but I would do it again.

I broke the Peace Corps Volunteer Honor Code. I learned of another volunteer who has not been following Peace Corps instructions concerning leave time, and I called headquarters and ratted him out. I did.

It was mean. Very few people actually follow Peace Corps instructions regarding leave time to the letter. Many of us fudge a day or two when submitting forms requesting time off. We live in a beautiful part of the world and want to spend as much time enjoying it as we can. I understand that. Non-volunteers who read this blog may be surprised that we are technically allowed only 24 days off per year. Granted, volunteers who work in the schools are also allowed a certain number of school holidays off. It adds up to a substantial amount of vacation, but in South Africa with its beaches, parks, history and culture it's impossible to get enough time off. Or at least Peace Corps tries valiantly to prevent volunteers from going on permanent vacation.

As they should.

We are volunteers. We live in uncomfortable poverty. We engage in often grueling labor for a pittance. We do not enjoy the perks of the more gainfully employed, so why should we be constrained to their work/vacation schedules?

Because we signed up for this. We knew this was coming.

In America, people are fond of the phrase "You get what you pay for". In my experience, too many volunteers carry this mantra with them. They barely earn enough to survive, so there's no need to actually work. There's no need to go to school or participate in community activites. But again, we agreed to this. We took an oath. We gave our word.

Peace Corps volunteers are often the only Americans that the villagers we live with will ever meet. Everything we say or do is representative of Americans everywhere. It's tough living inside a fish bowl. It's annoying, but it's also an important aspect of our job. We exercise tremendous influence over what people think of Americans as a people. We have a choice. We can show that Americans hold themselves to high personal standards, or we can show them that Americans are purely selfish flakes with no standards at all. We can demonstrate that Americans are men and women of their word, or that Americans put themselves over all else. I like to believe that Peace Corps represents the best of America, and that is the standard to which I hold myself.

Is it fun? Is it easy? No, of course not. There are plenty of days when I don't feel like getting out of bed. Plenty of moments when I want to make a sarcastic or rude comment. Nevertheless, I get out of bed everyday. I hold my tongue. When a colleague asks me to do something I consider useless or ridiculous, I buckle down and do it. I do all of these things because, as a Peace Corps volunteer, as an American, I believe that they are important. High personal standards may not be important in university where everyone's your best friend and you spend days on end in your pajamas, but when you're a lekgowa in a village they matter. The personal legacy Peace Corps volunteers leave in the memory of host country nationals lasts a lifetime.

Not only are most of the men and women employed at the Peace Corps office in Pretoria host country nationals (South African), but they also represent our immediate superiors.

Volunteers cannot be fired, we cannot earn promotions or bonuses, there is no such beast as an annual review, in fact, there is no such thing as direct supervision. No one at the Peace Corps office knows exactly what I'm doing at my site. They don't know what classes I teach or don't teach, the garden I work in, the map I'm painting or the book donation I'm working on. For all they know I sit in my room all day and watch "Friends". To be honest, many a Saturday has passed that way, but no matter. Just because we don't have "real" jobs is no excuse to slack off. Just because no one is breathing down our collective necks is no reason to lose sight of our objectives. We are all adults. We should be able to handle ourselves accordingly, sans supervision.

We are lucky to have the positions that we do. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the United States was at 9.6% in August. It is not inconceivable to think that many volunteers would be part of that statistic were it not for Peace Corps. Instead, we are living abroad with a steady income guaranteed for two years, plus health insurance at no cost to us at all. We are enjoying a care-free existence thanks to the common American taxpayer. If we are answerable to no one else, we are answerable to him. There's a nearly 1 in 10 chance that whoever paid for our groceries last week could now use some help himself. At the very least we can show our appreciation by doing the very best work we can.

Unfortunately, some volunteers are forced into more difficult work environments. I have no sympathy. I moved, so can you. If something's not working, change it. Make it work. Adapting to new and challenging environments is, again, what we signed up for.

Will following the rules, being accountable, and holding oneself to high standards make one happy? Probably not. I would much rather be writing this from a beach in Durban, but I'm saving my leave time for December and have classes to teach in the meantime. Is Peace Corps about being happy?

Maybe... Anyone who says they haven't grown as a person, or learned something new about themselves since coming here is either a liar or very dense. The process of self-discovery is inevitable when you udergo such a rapid change in circumstances that is moving from the first-world into the Peace Corps lifestyle. I am living alone, in a desert, on the other side of the world. Am I really the same person who used to buy coordinating outfits with my friends and drink over-priced coffee as a social activity? Well, no, not exactly. Am I more or less happy? About the same. There are greats highs and tremendous lows associated with my service, but on the whole I am happy and satisfied with my life here.

As much as my family and friends may be heartened to hear that, it is really beside the point. My well-being is beside the point. Coming from a culture where people are drowning in social networking and fancy applications begging for the broadcasting of personal information, it is easy to be self-absorbed. For goodness' sakes, I have the audacity to be writing this blog and expect it to be read! From Facebook to Twitter, modern life is all about ego, most often our own. We are practically programmed to think only of ourselves. With high-speed internet and credit cards, instant gratification has never been easier. Combine the two and we have masses of people whose thoughts revolve almost entirely on themselves and whatever makes them happy. Such people have no place in the Peace Corps.

Fundamentally, at its very core, the Peace Corps is about helping others. Yes, this is difficult, more so than most people reading this in the U.S. can imagine. Yes, it may also be selfish as science has shown some people get their kicks from giving, but no matter what the mission of the Peace Corps is service. That means putting ourselves, our hopes, dreams, happiness and ambitions, aside and serving others. Putting a smile of someone else's face. Deriving the quadratic equation when you really don't have the time because a learner asked. Letting young children help with the painting even though they cannot keep the paint in the lines and you have to go back and fix it. Peace Corps is not an individual achievement, not a box to check off on the list of things you can use to impress strangers and admissions officers. Peace Corps is an opportunity to serve, serve the people of a developing nation and America. It may not be a higher cause, but it's certainly a cause bigger than ourselves. One that deserves our respect and best efforts at doing our job, whatever that may be in your community.

So, here's to high standards and hard work, even in a developing country, without proper sanitation and poor compensation. Here's to leverage, no slack and synergy even when there's no one around to admire and appreciate it. Here's to doing our best when it isn't exactly what we want. Here's to Peace Corps and the people who make it such a great organization, the best of America.

... And that's why I'll never write a book. I ramble. In my defense, have you ever tried to revise a rant of such length on a cell phone?

I will post more about life and the universe in the near future. I have several good blog ideas.

To any PCV readers who may have taken offense: As Dr. Seuss said, "Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind." I love you, let's do lunch.

Thanks for reading my ramblings. Who knew my moral backbone was so easily offended?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

From the Newsroom

The strike has been suspended. Schools and hospitals began reopening today around South Africa. I go back to work tomorrow. Considering that we left off in the middle of exams, I wonder what we'll be doing.

More news on what I've been up to lately, a list of Peace Corps blogs better than mine and some more philosophical thoughts to follow. Stay tuned!