Friday, August 21, 2009

And so it ends, and keeps going...

I am now an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer). One week ago, I boarded a plane and left South Africa. When I arrived in the U.S., it was the first time I had set foot in a developed country since July 2007. The last week has been jam packed with America but South Africa still runs through my veins. I have barely finished unpacking and I am packing again. Tomorrow I’ll begin yet another adventure as I move to Boston and start work on a PhD in Applied Physics.

Two weeks before I left my village, I threw a party to say thank you to all the people I’d befriended and worked with over the past two years. It ended up morphing into my farewell party. I slaughtered a sheep (with my leatherman), much food was cooked (thanks to the teachers and other PCVs that came), and speeches were made. All I had done was set a date and buy the sheep. In the end it came out better than anything I could have planned myself. Sometimes, it’s better to let the village do its thing.

After the party I was left with two weeks to finish the individual good byes. Having so much time made it much easier and allowed me to gradually fade away rather than suddenly disappearing. I spent less time at the schools, pushed others to do things themselves, and let go of ownership of my past projects. I am quite satisfied with the library and hope it will continue to flourish and expand. My other projects also closed or transitioned well but the results may be less tangible.

With the extra time freed from my projects, I took time for myself and for the people that were closest to me. I had meals with my priests, gave gifts to various people, cleaned up my room, did a final bike tune-up, and put together a box and binder for the next volunteer that will come to my site. I also took some time to wander. One day, I wandered among the thorn bushes, picking out the yellow flowers between the claws and then I went to lay them on the grave of Mma Thati. One day, I packed lunch and wandered up into the hills until I could see over all of Heuningvlei. I found a perch in a tree and ate naartjies, journaled, and just sat with my thoughts.

When the morning came to leave, I sipped rooibos tea on the porch with my host mother as the sun rose. Fr. Tarimo came and we loaded my bags for the trip to Vryburg. Our goodbyes were filled more with smiles than with tears. Then we took off down the dusty road for the last time. On the way, we passed at least three random dancing people – standing by the side of the road or in front of their house, busting out some fine moves. Another volunteer pointed out that, African’s aren’t necessarily genetically born to be better dancers but they dance because no one ever tells them they can’t. When baby Kitso hears some tunes and starts shaking his stuff, we may laugh, but we are also clapping and cheering him on. Sometimes people will get out of their chair and dance with him. Fr. Tarimo rightly pointed out that I wouldn’t be seeing so many random dancers in America because they’d be taken to see some kind of psychologist.

In Vryburg, we met up with Kelee, the lovely former PCV that is now married in South Africa. I said my good-byes to Father and soon was joined by many other PCVs. That night, we cooked a nice meal, watched movies, and just chatted for hours. More good-byes came the next day as I got ready to bus up to Pretoria.

The last week in Pretoria went quite smoothly. I passed all my medical exams, finished all my paperwork, and had some productive exit interviews. I got some new clothes, saw the G.I. Joe movie, and ate at some of my favorite restaurants in the area. I got to spend some time with volunteers from all the training groups. It’s nice to look back over time and see the differences and improvements that have been made since my group arrived.

When Friday night came, I ran around the airport, buying a South Africa soccer shirt, flag, candies, and biltong (which I consumed on the spot), and made my final SA calls. The flight itself was quite nice, Boeing 777 with a sweet entertainment system. I think Emirates’ system is slightly nicer but it was still pretty nice. I watched; Body of Lies, Star Trek, He’s Just Not That Into You, and Gran Torino. And yes, I enjoyed every one of them and am not ashamed.

We arrived in Atlanta about 30 minutes early, which was fortunate because I was detained at immigration for about 45 minutes and questioned about what I had been doing for the last two years. My passport and immigration documents had been taken away in a mysterious red folder and I was led to a locked room. Inside I found an interesting assortment of people. There were a disproportionate number of people like me – young men of color, but there was also a family, an older woman, and a few middle aged white dudes. We weren’t told anything except to wait until our name was called. It was not too bad though and I was quite impressed with the CBP officers, who I felt were quite professional and considerate. The only annoying thing was one of those middle aged white guys, who was quite exasperated and kept complaining. Welcome to my America, buddy.

Soon enough, I was on my way. I got to make a detour in customs because I had said yes to “has been in contact with livestock”. I could not in good faith say no to that while my jacket was still stained with the blood of the sheep I had slaughtered… But that too was quite painless and I got through with all of my luggage.

Two flights and several hours later, I finally met up with my family. The last week has been chock full of American-ness; big hamburgers, rare steaks, chicken fingers, real milkshakes, and more. I also learned to fire a shotgun and went clay pigeon shooting with my dad and his friend. Yesterday, we went hiking up near the Finger Lakes.

I’m slowly beginning to settle into this new place that my parents live in. I still get occasional flashbacks of South Africa and have so far had two vivid dreams of myself back in SA. I’ve been able to chat with many old friends though and start catching up with all the changes of the past two years. Overall though, I think I’m doing pretty well.

Looking back over the two years, I feel quite satisfied. The losses and challenges have been significant; deaths of loved ones at home and in the village, burying three students, witnessing corporal punishment and other unethical practices, the end of a serious relationship after more than two years together, dealing with racism on an unprecedented level, random but sometimes disconcerting medical issues, and at times being overwhelmed by the bureaucratic machinery of the South African government, the Department of Education, and the Peace Corps. But all of this honed my skills, tempered my pride, and gave me new perspectives that I hope I will carry with me. And I’ve also had amazing successes and incredible gains; becoming a part of so many new families, getting in touch with the land and farming life, successfully creating a library that people actually value and use, bringing smiles to kids faces during youth camps, seeing kids click as they understood a new math concept, teaching people to use computers, traveling and hiking in beautiful new places, and learning a foreign language well.

Somehow, I made it through the two years without ever being a direct victim of crime in any form. As a guy, I also did not have anything near the level of harassment the female volunteers dealt with either. For my comrades that went through all of this, I really salute and respect you.

If I could go back two years ago and make the choice, it would still be the same. Will I ever do it again? I truly hope so. From the relationships I had with other volunteers, I saw that the experience can vary so much. I think serving again either as a married volunteer with my spouse or as a retiree would be great.

But for now, I’ve got 5-6 years to get myself some higher education (and live a little, when they let me out for air). It’s been a joy to keep this blog for the last two years and I thank all you readers. At some point, I hope to return to South Africa and when I do, perhaps I’ll add an entry or two here. But until that day, this is the end.

Ke a leboga. A go na molato. Salang ka kagiso.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Many Good-byes

This is probably going to be the penultimate installment on this blog. I’ll post one last time once I’m back in the U.S. bringing everything full circle. But for now, I’m very much in South Africa.

The last few months have been intense and full of activity. Mostly though, it’s been full of good-byes. Here is a sampling of some of the things that come to mind.

Peace Corps Plus

In June, I saw two friends take the plunge and choose a life that is sure to be interesting. One took the Peace Corps plunge, extending for a third year as a PCV in China. Another took the marital plunge, choosing a life far from her American family and full of goats and cows. She jokingly says she’s signed up for “Peace Corps for life.” To these two young women who have been close friends and counselors over the past two years, I am very thankful and wish them all the best in their futures.

Journey to the East

In June, I left the African continent for the first time since I set foot on it in 2007. I went to India where I met with my family. Though I’ve been to India several times before, my experience this time was quite different after living abroad for two years. Things seemed to make more sense and I found myself connecting with people much easier. Also, I realized I’ve picked up some good skills for communicating with people that speak broken, heavily accented English. I filled up on food and reconnected with relatives that I hadn’t seen in many years. But the main reason to go to India was to say farewell. After a year, I was finally able to pay my last respects to my grandfather. The end of the trip was filled with more goodbyes as I parted with my grandmothers and other relatives, knowing it may be the last time we meet.

Closing out

Back in South Africa, the last weeks have been a whirlwind. Two weekends ago, I had my farewell party in the village. I bought and slaughtered a sheep. Friends and co-workers gathered and cooked up a feast. The day of the event, some teachers hastily put together a program. In the end it came out more beautifully than I could have planned. Members of my schools, the library, the community, and my host family all spoke. I made a speech thanking them all as well. Twice I stumbled and had to collect myself; once while talking about the ways in which I’d grown and once while expressing my respect for my departed host grandmother. So much has happened in two years. I leave satisfied that I’ve done my best, been thoroughly tested, and seen myself for what I really am. I truly hope the relationships I’ve built here will survive the distance and time that we will spend apart. In the end the only thing that really matters is our humanness, our Ubuntu. Thank you South Africa, for bringing me to my knees, for crushing my pride, for bringing me face to face with the darkness inside me, for giving me the space to pick myself up and prove to myself and those I have grown to love that I can still succeed and do some good. Thank you to all who supported me, near and far. You helped me to never lose faith in myself during the worst times. In turn, I was able to believe in people here and help them believe in themselves. And finally thank you to all of you that have followed my blog. It’s been nice to hear from some of you and know that I’m not writing into a vacuum. I’m glad I’ve been able to share my experiences here and hopefully give a little perspective into life in rural South Africa and one facet of the Peace Corps experience.