Monday, October 31, 2011


During my first few months as a volunteer, I would sms my friend and fellow volunteer every Monday with the number of weeks we had left of service. 99 weeks, 85 weeks, 78 weeks... It felt like an eternity. Time crawled. It doesn't feel that way anymore. Now I feel like the end is rushing towards me like a train. It's all happening too fast. Where have the last two years gone? What do I have to show for them? While I am deeply saddened to be leaving a country I've come to love and so many people I consider a second family, my greatest fear in regard to leaving is that my time spent here was a waste. I, as a volunteer, have been a failure.

I briefly spoke with another American visiting the Kuruman area about this very nagging and persistent feeling of mine. His response was that it only takes one to make a difference. You only need to change one life.

Sure, changing one life is a whole heck of a lot easier than changing the entire world (a goal Peace Corps works tirelessly to beat out of its prospective volunteers), but still, it's a tall order. I mean, how does one do it? Is there a book? A manual? A 12-step program? Are there metrics by which to measure one's influence on another? Is there any measurable result at all? How do you know you've changed a life?

Due to the lack of accurate data on life-changing, I've decided not to pursue that line of thought in the evaluation of myself as a Peace Corps volunteer. Instead, I'll revert to the three goals of Peace Corps itself.

(I'm paraphrasing here. I am not fluent in legalese.)

1) To help developing countries meet their need for skilled manpower.

I am skilled? According to the US job market, certainly not, unless you count french-frying and burger-flipping as marketable skills. In a South African work environment, this question is more difficult to answer. South Africa suffers from a massive skills crisis. While I am no more or less skilled than the average American, I am far better educated and experienced than Joe Schmo South African. This is not to say that I'm better than my colleagues. They are all infinitely more knowledgable and experienced concerning education in South Africa than I am or will ever be. However, I have skills to offer that don't already exist here. For example, I type with all ten fingers. I'm fluent in English. I can do maths without a calculator. On the flip side, I could be more skilled. Other volunteers have decades-worth of teaching experience. They have graduate degrees. They are considered skilled no matter where in the world they are. So, I think with regard to myself, the first goal is a draw. I'm right smack in the middle of the skill spectrum.

2) To share American culture with host country nationals

American culture is already pretty well represented in South Africa. Beyonce and Rihanna are mega-popular. Even Dolly Parton can be heard blasting from the sound system on taxis occassionally. All of the movies I've seen in theaters here in South Africa have been Hollywood productions. In terms of entertainment, there's nothing left for me to share. In terms of dispelling myths about America, I've done quite a lot of work, repeating everything from "No, not everyone in America is rich" to "No, not everyone in America is white" like a broken American propaganda record. In addition to answering the many point-blank questions I get, "Do you have children? Are you Christian?" ("No, most American women my age are childless." "Yes, but many Americans practice other religions.") I also spread a bit of American culture through my s'more making and holiday baking. Nothing is more cross-cultural than sharing a meal, or a cupcake. I'm putting a mental check mark next to this box.

3) Share host country culture with Americans. Well, you tell me. Have you learned anything about South Africa through my infrequent blogposts? I hope so!

When I stack myself up against the Peace Corps goals, I come out looking pretty good. Not glowing, exactly, but an all-around solid volunteer. I came, I achieved and soon, I will leave. I guess my nagging feelings of failure have more to do with my expectations of what success looks like. Namely, that success is a thing to be looked at. Whether it's a report card or a new house, generally "success" can be tied to a physical object. In my case as a Peace Corps volunteer, it's not. I kind of wish it were.

Out of the Woods

Just when I thought I had the whole "survival in Africa" thing figured out, I was felled once more by a violent and mysterious illness. It came straight out of nowhere, and laid me up in bed for two days, vomiting every few hours like clockwork. Don't worry, I'm better now. I'm not 100% yet, but I'm dressed, my teeth are brushed and I've kept down several crackers for most of the day. Anyway, while I was in throes of agony yesterday, I checked online to see what treatment advice the old interwebs had for me. Turns out, most people who post advice online don't live in a rural African village.

Ginger ale? Doesn't exist here.
Peppermint tea? Not available.
Toast? I don't own a toaster, or have any bread for that matter.

I made do with a package of stale crackers and water. It may not have helped speed my healing process, but I'm still alive and really looking forward to returning to a world where all manner of natural remedies are just a short drive down the road and I have friends and family willing to make the trip for me.

Right now I'm eating oatmeal and remembering how much I don't like it, who wants to fly over with some homemade chicken soup?