A Human Moment

I will post in a day or two with many updates, but first I experienced a pretty cool human moment the other day that I want to share. I was sitting out with one of my fellow volunteers whose SA name is Nospio. Earlier that day, her family had hosted a large party, inviting friends and family from across the village to come and celebrate and to give thanks. When we arrived, the landscape was very different from any “party” I had ever been to. The men and women sit on separate sides of the yard. All of the grandfather aged men sitting together under a tree, the younger men sitting outside of the trees shade together. Across the yard, there were all the Gogos (grandmothers) sitting under the shade of a tree, then all the middle aged women, and behind those groups all of the children. The night before the party, I went over to the house along with a few other volunteers to help them get the food ready. We would spend hours sitting at tables outside the house with gogos peeling carrots, butternut squash and prepping veggies to make enough food to serve a few hundred people the next day. It is never a concern about how the work will get done. There is never a concern of whether or not you will have big enough pots to cook everything in. Ubuntu (an explanation for another time) ensures that everything gets done. Alas, I digress…

So there I was, sitting at the close of a long day with my friend when we had two community elders come up and introduce themselves. It is extremely important in most South African cultures that you always greet someone before introducing yourself, asking a questions, or really even just walking by on the street. So, we exchanged out polite greetings and the two introduced themselves to us, as Steven and Robert. We greeted them back, introduced ourselves as Spiwe and Nosipo, and had a brief yet pleasant conversation before they headed out. At the time, I smiled at the irony of our names. There the four of us were, two strangers to two strangers, and yet each person introduced themselves with a name foreign to them, in hopes of making it easier for the other to remember and to feel comfortable. I think there is a special kind of beauty in a moment so simple as that, in a gesture so small, yet powerful. For while we are strangers in their home, and strangers to their culture, they sought to be so kind as to give us a name we could know.

Challenge to anyone reading, wherever you are. If you see someone who is a stranger to your land, try to find some small, simple gesture you can do to offer up warmth or bring a smile to their day. You never know the difference it can mean.

My second feel good story also serves to provide updates. For the past two weeks we were working in a local school teaching a five session seminar in the life orientations class about sexual health & HIV. Sex, safe sex, and sexual health can be tough topics to discuss, so we hoped the students would come armed with giggles and an open mind to help break through the shy/awkward stages. I was thrilled with the engagement we got from the class, and all in all thought it was a successful first practice at working wth youth and learning more about how to broach sensitive subjects across cultures moving forward.

One of the students lives in my village, and stopped by in the evening after our last day. She was one of our more talkative and engaging students, which was helpful to encourage the more shy students to speak up as well. When we were sitting out, sharing cold drink and I asked her about her thoughts on the class, I was stunned by her answer. She told me that normally in school, she never raises her hand. She will never volunteer an answer. She is last to join discussion. She does not speak up. But, when a group of strangers came into her classroom, tried in broken Xitsonga to introduce themselves, she saw a new kind of confidence she wanted to achieve, and for that, she decided that she wanted to try.

In honor of her, and International Women’s Day, I wanted to share with you this story, not just because of the difference I saw in her, but because of the difference I saw in the class. There were many other young men and women in the class who spoke up and chose to participate after she would raise her hand and be the first one to bravely venture an answer. Her courage in the classroom inspired others to participate, when interactive discussion is not always a part of school in SA as it is in the US. It has been said before when you educate a woman, you educate a family;  a community; a nation. There are numerous statistics with indicators that show the power of education girls and women, from increased health to higher earning in labor force and economy. And even when you dial down down down in the statistics to a small classroom in rural Mpumalanga, when you educate a young woman, and encourage her to find her voice, she inspires others in ways the educator can not.

Challenge again to anyone reading, encourage the young women and men around you to find their own voice. I was lucky in my life to be surrounded by family, friends and teachers that pushed me to find my own voice, and to never tell myself nor accept from anyone else that there is something I could not do. So take the time to tell the young people in your life, to find their voice, and in it their passion and strengths.

Speaking of that voice of mine, update on the Spider Saga is as follows…

How do you kill a spider with a shoe if the spider is bigger than the shoe?

A few days ago, the spider that was on the porch of my host mothers house was the largest I have seen yet. Now, for those who haven’t kept track of my spider acceptability chart, anything palm size or smaller gets a free pass and can remain on my wall, wardrobe or window so long as they do not come near my bed. Any spider, no matter the size, is killed sans judge & jury if it crawls in/on my bed. For spiders that are larger than palm size, I will usually decide to wage war, to at a minimum chase them out of my room. So, you can image my immense disappointment and dread when the big porch spider, which was slightly larger than my whole and, had founds its way into my room, and hovered on a perch above my bed, laying claim to its new kingdom. YIKES! The issue them becomes escape routes. If I miss the spider, only get a partial hit, or it somehow gets away, it is just inches from disappearing behind my headboard and I will never sleep again. I opted for a book smash, which is a dangerous maneuver on a wall. But, I think the universe decided to throw me points for boldness since for the book smash you have to be up close and personal, and I came out a winner. For the moment, anyways.

Later, I am laying in bed trying to fall asleep under my scorching hot tin roof. As I am staring at the ceiling hoping for sleep to finally come and take me out of my sticky hot misery, I feel something crawl quickly from across my exposed stomach and I instantly, and rightfully so, FREAK OUT.

I flail aggressively, and engage in some sort of a hand sweeping movement to brush away whatever horrid thing is crawling across me.

I think I’ve made contact and brushed whatever it was to the floor. Still spazzing, I reach my headlamp so I can shine a light and find whatever it was and kill it. Needless to say, images of hand spider are flashing through my head. Quick reminder for your visual and comic needs, I encourage you to keep in mind that I still cant move, stand on my own or jump out of bed as I have my big brace on my leg for my mending leg.

Once I get the light shining, I see no movement on the floor as my eyes desperately scan from one side of the room to the other and around me in my bed. Where can it be? What was that thing? I know I felt something. I know I did, but what. Where is it? …..And as these thoughts also fly around my head, the adrenalin subsides just enough for me to feel something in my body other than the pounding of my heart…and I feel something moving…on my leg….my hurt leg….under my cast…!

Again, with the flailing and spazzing, and out crawls a frantic scorpion, barreling towards the now bunched covers next to me. Yup, a scorpion. In a quick motion, I grab my water bottle next to my bed and crushed it, all the while its tail attempting to penetrate my water bottle and release its poison. I don’t even know where to begin, in terms of invading safe mental spaces. There was a scorpion in my bed. What else could be in my bed at any given time? There was a scorpion hiding in the space between my leg and cast. OMG, what else could crawl there. Nothing is safe anymore. And so, my life in Peace Corps South Africa continues, though I have earned a new salutation for my signature line.

Call me Spiwe the Scorpion Slayer.

The Crutch Life

Before I dive in to this next post, I wanted to send out a blanket thank you to everyone who has reached out via FB, the blog and email. Please know that I am receiving the communication and appreciate it so much! I love getting to read through and have those connections back home. Please know that I haven’t responded because it is very challenging to get connection to internet but as soon as I have an opportunity too I will 🙂

For this round of updates, I thought I could bring you all come comedy as to what pre service training looks like on crutches.

Each morning, two of the volunteers that live in my village walk to my house to make sure I am all set getting ready and help me get my things to the transport. They also take the time to fill my water filter, chat with my host mom, and provide general happiness to the day. I am not sure it would be possible to survive without them.

Last week we had four days of rain in a row. While everyone is extremely thankful of the rains, for bringing both much needed water security to areas that struggle as well as cooler weather, the rain also brings with it a new set of crutch challenges. I liken clutching through mud and on mud roads to slalom skiing, with a bit less control. Each step is a roll of the dice in a game you don’t remember signing up to play, but nevertheless continue to roll and roll as you move towards the transport. Thankfully, when I did finally roll 7 & out, it was on the way home from school so that I had time to wipe off the inches of mud that had caked on to me and my cast. I am extremely thankful that my parents overnighted me my rain jacket when I was at staging in Philly before departing, because holding an umbrella is an option I don’t have, and the rains here can be pretty intense. A saying that has emerged among my cohort is that in SA, everything is a bit intense. More rain vs crutching excitement to follow…

Language class is currently being held in a open air garage-like structure at one of my village mates house. While I am doing decently well at learning the new language, there is no good way to sit with a cast that keeps your leg straight and goes from your ankle to the top of your leg. So I alternate sitting all the way at the front of the chair so that just a few inches of my bum stays on, or I sit with all the way back with the entire left half of my body off the chair, so that either way my leg can be straight. Either way, 4 weeks of not being able to sit comfortably ever is 4 more than I ever wanted. Now, back to the rain. A few things I have learned. One, burglars are more likely to come and thieve during the rain for a few reasons. First, there are less people outside. When it is not raining, everyone typically drags plastic chairs outside and sit under a tree or other form of shade, hoping for a breeze, which plays into reason number two; the roofs. The roofs are tin roofs, which heat up the houses like crazy in the day, and make it sound like a drummer form an 80’s rock band is giving you a never ending solo performance when the rain pounds on the tin roof. The noise makes it difficult for you to be able to hear anyone stealing. So, when we arrived to language to find a car parked sideways in our classroom, we giggled and just wrote it off as another on a long list of laughable “I don’t even know what to say here” moments. When they found the owner to come move the car, he explained he parked it that way so it would be harder for someone to take. And yes, I do have a picture that will be coming your way as soon as I get enough internet to upload.

One area that I wanted to give some positive remarks towards the crutch life comes in the war on spiders. I now have a weapon to utilize that keeps me a safe distance from the spider in question while I can attempt to kill it (or so I thought). This plan was great, as is all things, until it wasn’t. So there I was, one afternoon in my bedroom when confronted with a large spider on my wall. For a spider to make it on my hit list, let alone recognition list, it has to be at least palm size or larger, and this one fit the ticket. So, I stood back, raised my crutch and prepared for battle. Problem was, when I  only managed to knock him off the wall, as he was now barreling towards me, full speed on the floor. In my infinite wisdom, I did foresee the spider charging while I had no escape option since I was using my only source of mobility for the attack. Tisk. Tisk. In my clumsy getaway attempt, I ended up falling to the floor, next to the spider who thankfully pivoted away and ran under my door. Now while some of you might be quick to call that operation a failure, I will make it down as a training experiment and make some adjustments to my overall spider strategy. In the interim,  there are currently four visible spiders on my wall, as life and time in Africa goes on.

Back to the rain, once I have successfully navigated myself through the mud slopes to get to transport, my salvation is short lived before I arrive at school. Inside most of the buildings here, I am greeted by concrete flooring, slicked with water trudged in from the outside rain lands. I crutch along with small, hesitant movements waiting to hit a wet spot and meet the harsh concrete with a thud. Luckily, I have had few embarrassing wipe outs to date, and am hoping to keep the streak alive for the next few weeks left in my crutch life.

For a more serious note, I have been reflecting a lot on the PST experience, which can be extremely challenging. Many trainees struggle with letting go of independence, letting go of control over what and when you eat, your schedule, and essentially every aspect of your life. Being on crutches significantly limits me physically to going to visit other volunteers and utilizing the small bit of free time we do get for social activities. In a strange way, having to give up 100% of control and choices to be able to live on crutches with my host family in the rural community has helped me to let go of my independence that many of my peers struggle with. Who would have guessed that forced helplessness would prove to be a bit of a virtue.

More updates to come.Thank you again for all of the love and support! Teaser: a week from tomorrow I will get the announcement to see what site I will be living at for the next two years.