South Africa is one of Peace Corps' largest posts and most local people are familiar with the organization. I have never encountered any negativity regarding the Peace Corps or its volunteers. Rather, people seem to love it and consequently shower me with praise. It happens on taxis, in shops, and even just standing around on the street. People learn I'm a volunteer with the Peace Corps and suddenly they're gushing with thanks. I even had a taxi driver dedicate a song to me. While I enjoy a nice thank-you every now and then, and the song dedication was good fun, generally the praise makes me extremely uncomfortable. It just feels undeserved.
The most frequently cited explanation for the gratitude of strangers is that Peace Corps volunteers speak, and therefore often teach, English. South Africa has many official languages, but two are predominate in-country. These are, of course, Afrikaans and English. These are also the only languages in which secondary school is taught and Grade 12 exams are given. Thus it is imperative that people learn one of these languages in addition to their home language. Due to South Africa's recent, and still painful, history most black people wish to learn English. However, this can be a real difficulty in rural areas where the most qualified and well-educated English-speaking teachers fear to tread. Enter the Peace Corps in shining armour on a white horse.
We go to rural areas and speak English. We often teach it, both formally and informally. When we are lazy and don't keep up our local language skills, we inadvertently teach English by virtue of being incompetent fools who can't communicate properly without falling back on our native tongue.
I work at a thousand different projects everyday for which I receive little more than a cursory note of appreciation, but near strangers profusely thank me just for opening my mouth and saying what comes naturally. Using English is, for me, just too easy to deserve the level of praise that is heaped on it. So while I always nod and smile along when I'm being praised like a demi-god, I also cringe a little on the inside and feel just a tad guilty. Yes, I speak and teach English in a rural African village, but it's not especially difficult for me so let's not get too carried away with gratitude.
Sidenote: The scale of the English-teaching operation of Peace Corps is truly impressive. I have met people in South Africa who learned English from volunteers in Ghana, Malawi and other African countries decades ago. They still remember that Peace Corps volunteer, and they are still grateful to them.
Second Sidenote: Dear South Africans, you're welcome.