Editor’s Note: for the past year, Andrew Ross of near Florence has been a volunteer in the Peace Corps, and has been living in South Africa.
Andrew recently emailed Vevay Newspapers with an update on the first year of his two-year commitment; and wanted to share some of his experiences with the readers. Andrew is the son of Steve and Barbara Fletcher.
REFLECTIONS ON THE PAST YEAR
Today, August 17th, 2006 marks the one-year anniversary of my arrival into South Africa.
As is the usual case with time, it has gone by so quickly. The thing is, that, before I ever decided to leave my home country, I knew that the next two years of my life would pass at the blink of an eye. I knew that, upon leaving for South Africa, my time in the Peace Corps would be over in no time. I was aware that, before I knew it, I would be once again hugging my family and friends and discussing what had happened in the past two years in South Africa.
One thing that I’ve learned up to this point in my life is that you really have to appreciate every day and every moment of your life because it all passes by so quickly. This happens even more so as we age.
I’m fortunate enough to communicate with other volunteers on a somewhat regular basis – a few times a month or so. What I’ve learned in my conversations is that those who struggle the most are the ones who feel that they aren’t accomplishing what they came here to do. My advice to them is that they need to slow down and really appreciate the whole experience: the wonderful African spirit within most South Africans; the clearest night sky you’ll ever see; the special attention you receive for being the only white person among 100,000 people; the list goes on.
If they fail to appreciate these small, but very important aspects, they will wonder what happened every day for two years. I also try to remind them that this experience isn’t just about what “I” want to get out of it or what “I” what to accomplish; it’s about what South Africans want to get out of it, and what they gain from the experience as well.
Our goals as Peace Corps volunteers are usually not the same as the goals of our communities, so we usually end up meeting somewhere in the middle. Peace Corps volunteers should be satisfied with that. Often Peace Corps volunteers let their tangible accomplishments determine their happiness and/or the success of their overall experience, and, to me, this is a mistake.
There is so much more to this experience than how we help those whom we are serving.
I won’t get too philosophical, but in reality, most people are happy that we are willing to live with them for two years. They tend to see what we do as a much greater sacrifice than I do. I cannot recall how many times I’ve heard the words, “but Andrew, you must go home to see your family, or you won’t make it for two years.”
I fully understand the basis for their comments, as most of them never leave the village they were born. I just remind them that I do have a family and many friends in South Africa as well. And, that I’m doing just fine.
TRIALS AND TRANSITIONS
As I said earlier, the first year has passed so quickly, but within that time there were days that never seemed to end. By far, the most difficult part of this experience was the first six months.
When I think back to what transitions took place when I joined the Peace Corps, simply put, it was a complete change of every aspect of my life: a new culture, new family and friends, and a new job, all happening simultaneously. You can imagine the toll this takes on your physical and mental health. I remember during our first month of training, a former volunteer came in to describe the experience. Her quote was, “You’re going to want to quit, several times – don’t, because you are going to regret it.”
Our country director told us that most volunteers who leave before the full two years end up regretting that decision. Personally, I cannot say that I’ve every seriously thought about quitting, but there have been times when I just wanted to go home for a few days. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be practical. These feelings usually subside and I gain comfort by writing and reading letters or looking at photographs of my old life.
I always told myself that once I came into this country, if anyone wanted to see me, they’ll have to book a flight to South Africa. When you only allow yourself one option, it’s much easier to live with it. My parents are visiting in December, so that will help to alleviate my desire to see them, for a short while anyhow.
I also spoke a bit earlier about the transitions you face when you leave everything you know and love.
I remember another Peace Corps volunteer describe the feeling of loneliness. She said, “You’re feeling alone and lonely, but you’re never really alone.”
What this volunteer meant was that, for the most part, you will always have people around you, but these people can never really relate to you, your culture or what you are going through. So, there’s a sense of loneliness in that.
I have managed to find some people in the village with whom I can relate. Fortunately for me, I ended up living with a wonderful family here. Peace Corps volunteers refer to their families as “host families.”
My host father was visiting the U.S. in July of 2005. He’s a minister for the Church of Nazarene and visits Indiana every four years. So, he knows a little bit about where I’m coming from. Both of my host parents speak several African languages and their English is great too, so we don’t have a challenge in communicating. We communicate a lot in English and Shangaan, the local dialect.
Those volunteers who live with non-English speaking families acquire the language more quickly, but they face the challenge of not really getting to know each other for quite a long time. I didn’t have that problem and feel very fortunate about that.
LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE
Although my host parents are very well spoken in English, most other people in the village are not. Therefore, you are almost forced to learn the language.
My family is very active in the community, so they are always attending weddings, funerals, parties, etc. and they love to take me along with them wherever they go. Being the only white person or “mulungu” in an area of 100,000 people, you can imagine the attention I receive on a daily basis, which means lots of interactions and opportunities to learn the language.
Learning the language is definitely one of the great challenges for a Peace Corps volunteer. There are very few similarities, structurally, with English. Other common foreign languages like French and Spanish share many words that at least sound like English words. Here, it’s very rare to find that. What usually happens is that some Peace Corps volunteers will learn the language; while others will squeak by for two years with English.
I’m somewhere in the middle right now, but I have a high school learner who comes by once a week for tutoring. I help him with English, he helps me with Shangaan.
FOOD AND CULTURE
In South Africa, the staple food is corn (maize). Although we Americans know plenty about corn, the look, the taste, etc. the preparation is very different here.
The families grow the corn and then grind it themselves using a large bowl and a large wooden club, which is nearly the size of a small person. A more well-to-do family can afford to buy the pre-ground corn at the grocery store.
Once it is ground, it is then cooked with water in a pot. The process itself is very interesting and takes a while to get the hang of it. The end product is “pap” and it has the consistency of a very thick cream of wheat. It is usually eaten with meat and another vegetable, most likely cabbage. And, this is the meal most families eat every night!
Again, I’m fortunate enough to live with a family that adds a little variety to their cooking, They alternate between eating chicken and eating beef. Also, on Sunday, they cook rice instead of pap and even add a few more vegetables. I also try to cook once a week to show them some of my culture.
The meal I described above is the typical meal, but there are lots of additions to mention. The people also love eating “miroho”, which is basically a wild grass picked from fields. They eat this alone or sometimes they mash it together with peanuts.
One of the highlights at our school thus far was the day I tried Mopani worms. These are like thick, hairless caterpillars that the locals harvest from only one kind of tree, the Mopani tree.
Upon entering this country, I had the “I’ll try anything once” attitude. Well, I have tried almost everything from cow feet, chicken feet, and even these worms. I have learned to say no to animal feet, but I’m still trying to figure out how to avoid eating Mopani worms. My teachers love bringing them to school and saying “Look Andrew, or ‘Nkateko’ (my African name), I brought you a special treat.”
So, I smile, struggle to eat them, and say thank you. In reality, once you get over the fact that you’re eating a large worm (cooked, or dried), they’re really not that bad. I think if I were to pick a Mopani leaf off the tree, the taste would be about the same as the worm itself. After all, you are basically eating digested Mopani leaves.
There is so much more to the culture than just the food. My weekends are usually full with funerals, church, and playing soccer.
I try not to attend just one church in the village, as I want to be exposed to as much as I can while I’m here. Generally, though, I end up going to my host father’s church. I enjoy supporting him and the music is just fantastic. The music I hear at church extends far beyond the boundaries of the church. In fact, music is one of the greatest components of African culture. They sing everywhere – at funerals, weddings, at schools, before every meeting.
Literally, music is everywhere. Often, the night before a funeral, you can hear large crowds of people gathered singing traditional African songs. They refer to these as night vigils. The singing continues until about 3 a.m. Those who are participating then wake at 4:30 a.m. to prepare food and other arrangements for the funeral.
It’s at funerals where you really see the community coming together and helping each other out. There are never special invitations to a funeral, so the hosts never know if 100 or 2,000 people are coming. Can you imagine that practice in the U.S.?
Another important aspect of their culture is the way people treat one another. It is imperative that you greet everyone you meet in the village. You can imagine how exhausted I was after the first day after saying hello to everyone in my village. This is something you just get used to.
Now, I’ve become quite acquainted with this practice. If you’re in the city, the rule doesn’t apply. This is just another way of Africans showing each other that they recognize you as humans and really care for you.
OTHER THINGS TO SPEAK OF
Obviously, the day-to-day living is very different than what I’m used to as an American.
Most villages struggle with not having running water. I can say, honestly, that very few, if any houses in my village having running water. About 95-percent of South Africa is now electrified; so most volunteers have this luxury. To get water, most families are within a half-mile or so.
They either use wheelbarrows and five-gallon buckets to transport the water. The women often carry the buckets on their heads, which is quite an amazing site to see, as they don’t use hands for balancing.
Also, the poverty rate is extremely high, with unemployment ranging somewhere between 60-80-percent in the rural villages. Right now, all across South Africa, about 40-percent of the population is unemployed. This is an area that the government is focusing on. It’s a huge task.
One source of employment is public transportation, which consists of small minibuses driving rampantly throughout all areas of the country. There’s no schedule so you just stand by the road and wait for one of these taxis to pass buy. It’s not very economical and it doesn’t seem like a good system overall, but, the bottom line is, it works, and it’s what I use to get from place to place.
Most of my work consists of going to schools and working with teachers.
One of our main goals within this particular project is helping the schools to implement the new curriculum, which was introduced in 1998. Yes, its been eight years since it was introduced, but most schools are still resisting it because it requires a completely new style of teaching.
This style requires teachers to act more as facilitators and less as lecturers, with the students being highly active in whatever lesson they are implementing. The former Bantu-education system told teachers exactly what to teach and how to teach and didn’t really expect learners to think critically or solve problems. As with all change, it takes time.
I also help with general school management and organization, finances, team building, and trying to motivate teachers to be passionate about their job.
This last element, motivating teachers, has been the most challenging for me and for most other volunteers. If I could identify the greatest challenge to South Africa’s education system, it would be the lack of motivation and passion for teaching amongst educators.
Peace Corps volunteers try hard to help educators “see the light” in terms of the value of education. In the end though, you can only help someone benefit through change if they really want to change. The saying “you can take a horse to the water but you cannot make it drink” rings so true when working with educators. Ultimately, the fate of their education system rests with them. I just try to bring them closer to the water.
My hope is that this general recount of my first year in the U.S. Peace Corps will bring any interested readers up to speed on what it’s like to leave home and volunteer in a foreign country.
Of course, any person ever considering doing something like this must realize that every place in this world is incredibly unique and my experiences are very different than the volunteer within 100 miles of me. Volunteering, in whatever form, is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your country, to another country, and to yourself.
As I had predicted and anticipated, this experience has already changed me as a person. Many of these changes I’m not even aware of. This experience is also changing the people in my village who had never talked with a white person before.
I remember a day where I was walking with a fellow teacher and he had the biggest smile on his face. I asked him why he was smiling, and he replied, “Andrew, you don’t understand. No other person in our village has ever walked down this path with a white man.”
So, this experience is really a small step in making history, in helping to create a society where all men and all women, regardless of color, can walk down any path together.
See you all in a year.
Anyone interested in more information about United States Peace Corps can visit the website:
Editor’s Note: for the past year, Andrew Ross of near Florence has been a volunteer in the Peace Corps, and has been living in South Africa.