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Posts from the ‘Peace Corps Realities’ Category

Education is the most powerful weapon; part two

I’ve been MIA on my blog lately because I’ve been busy finishing projects and spending time with people before this journey is up. Anyways, here’s a late — but better than never — video of Sebetsang reciting one of his poems at a library opening ceremony at my school. I wrote the quote, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world” (Nelson Mandela) for him once, and from there his ideas have spiraled into an essay and a poem. Take a look and see just how bright this grade 8 boy is! I’ve recently learned his name means “hard worker” in Sotho. He’s come a long way, and I can’t fathom how well he’ll be doing in five years.


Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Last m200px-Oh,_the_Places_You'll_Goonth in Pretoria, I got to meet up with my best bud in my cohort for the first time in six months. Before kicking back, dressing up to pretend we’re still in Los Angeles and chowing on a classy dinner, we went to a bookstore. George had placed five “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss books on hold to buy and wrap up for the newest education Peace Corps Trainees he was hosting at his site that weekend. He thought it’d give them a hint of encouragement to trek along, especially during the uncertain and trying times of pre-service training.

I had read the book before, but never realized how much it related to the Peace Corps until George and I sat down and read through it together. Every page we flipped through we laughed and said, “Yup, that is SO Peace Corps!”

I don’t think I need to do much interpretation of the text from the book; Peace Corps Volunteers, I promise it’ll speak to you. Anyone else – whether you’re interested in joining the Peace Corps or not – this is what it’s truly like and the attitude you must have to experience Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
by Dr. Seuss

Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care. About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.” With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down a not-so-good street.

And you may not find any you’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town. I’s opener there in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!

You’ll be on your way up! You’ll be seeing great sights! You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.

You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.

I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.


You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch.

You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump.

And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.

No! That’s not for you! Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because you’re that kind of a guy!

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all. Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t. Because, sometimes, they won’t.

I’m afraid that sometimes you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win, cause you’ll play against you.

All Alone! Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On you will go though the Hakken-Kraks howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike. And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.

You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

Kid, you’ll move mountains!
So…be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ale Van Allen O’Shea, you’re off to Great Places!

Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

Peace Corps realities: sexual harassment

As being somebody who automatically stands out in a Zulu community and 100 percent Zulu shopping town, it’s inevitable that I’ll deal with sexual harassment from time to time. I expected it. I can look absolutely disgusting, not have bathed in four days, and not care about my appearance, but still get hit on or proposed to. My American friends and I have come to conclusion we think men hit on us because they see it as a challenge, something to conquer – they just want to be able to say they had a white woman before.

Here’s a typical scenario:

“Can I have your number?”
“Please? Why not girl?”
“Because I said NO.”
“Oh, c’mon girl…”
“I said NO I have a boyfriend in America.”
“Ah, but America is far. He won’t know.”

Here’s my most humorous scenario so far:

“I have to confess something to you.”
“I’m in love with you.”
“You don’t even know me. You’ve never talked to me before.”
“Yes, but it is fate. I love you.”
“No, no you don’t. You cannot love someone without knowing them.” “Can I have your number?”
“No, I have an American boyfriend.”
“He won’t know.”

Ok – who would honestly believe that if someone said that to them?

The way men keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing even when you are being rude, giving them a death stare and being short with them, is unreal. They really think that if they keep nudging you, you’ll give in because they are that powerful. They think we’re vulnerable enough that we’ll give in because we need them. Some South African girls may be, however, because most young women my age rely on boyfriends.

Traditionally, South Africa is a patriarchal culture. Boys know from an early age that they can get away with a lot more than girls (more to come when I write about gender inequality). They learn from their older brothers and family members how to be a “man” growing up. Women are taught that men are supposed to be the suppliers for the home. That’s slowly changing with the younger and urban generations, but young men still grow up with a sense of entitlement. An estimate of 60,000 rape cases are reported to the police each year in South Africa, although experts believe the actual rape rate is x10 that at 600,000, according to a recent BBC article. Clearly this has to have some root in a power struggle between the genders.

Being in South Africa for eight months has taught me a lot about myself and already has changed me for the better. One positive I’ve gained from being here is learning how to have more self-respect when dealing with the opposite sex.

I view men differently now; I always think a man wants something and I rarely make eye-contact or acknowledge a man’s presence. When I’m in town, I will not respond to any cat calls, whistles or look anyone in the eye unless I hear, “Mpho!” (my African name).

Now that I’ve seen the way Zulu men treat women here, I have compared it with the way American men have treated me in the past. And believe it or not, I see a lot of similarities. The Zulu men are just a lot more upfront and American men are good at putting on an act fooling you, although they probably have the mind of a Zulu man. When I think about how annoying Zulu men can be, then I think about how some American men get away with stuff like that too – why should it be any different? Try sweet talking me again, American men. NOPE. Won’t happen.

Luckily, I rarely get hit on in my village and feel extremely safe. If I do, it’s usually from the village crazy who is a neighbour.

Today at my school’s morning assembly when I walked past him he tried to take my hand and corner me. As he was getting all up in my grill, I yelled sternly, “LEAVE ME ALONE.” Then the other educators heard, they screamed at him in Zulu and off he went.

I forgot about the instance until after school when a group of grade 7 boys came to the library. They asked me what happened that morning, and I simply told them that I get frustrated when men get too close to me. Then one of the boys said he came by to apologize for what had happened. The village crazy is his relative and he, “is crazy.”

That grade 7 boy is going to be a good man and role model for others. There are some responsible, young boys in my community that know wrong from right and how a woman should be treated. Eventually, although it may take generations, there will be more men in this country like that grade 7 boy.

Sexual harassment is an issue any female PCV will face – and even male PCVs in some cases. You just have to find the right way to deal with it; there is no right or wrong way. Sometimes, when I am around others who can help like my family or co-workers, I get angry and scream at men. In other circumstances, mostly when I’m alone, I just laugh because it’s actually pretty funny they think they even have a chance.

Here’s to self-growth – any American man from now on will have to work for me if they want me. I wish more girls understood that about Zulu men. I hope my counterpart and I can get that through to our Girls on the Rise club in the future! After all, service is about making small strides within the bigger picture.


Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Peace Corps realities: empathy and apathy

Some days I drag my feet home brushing through the tall grass with my head down, feeling numb and like a robot. Other days, I come home and cry or feel like crying of frustration and anger and thus face plant onto my bed for a good hour or two. And, some other days, I feel like I’m living on Peace Corps cloud nine – that feeling like your heart is lifted into your throat and you’re hyped on caffeine. I want to cry, but in a good way because that day, I have been reminded once again why I serve.

Typical afternoon face plant

The Peace Corps emotional roller coaster is no exaggeration. The drastic ups and downs are ever-changing and will surprise you when you least expect a particular feeling to possess your body. I can go from feeling pain and empathy to feeling nothing in a minute. I can switch roles of being a walking zombie or a social justice fighter whenever I want by mentally telling myself, “Alright, just stop thinking about it. Let’s be realistic, Liz” or having just one kid or educator say something that makes it all worth it.

That’s because I’ve taught myself to think like this. And it hasn’t been easy – I struggled through City Year to figure out how to balance my feelings and my work from the beginning. Service is definitely a combination of both, but depending on the situation one will preside over the other.

Peace Corps has an extremely romanticized image in our communities and back in the States. People in our villages see us as someone who knows everything and can do anything, when we aren’t miracle workers. People in the States see PCVs as these moral, caring, and martyrs who will do anything to change the status quo and will fight for the children we work with, which is how most of us present ourselves (including this girl) on our social media and blogs. Well duh, we all embrace some of that mushy empathy or else we wouldn’t be serving. But to get through these two years of service, we can’t uphold that image all the time. Sometimes we need to be apathetic to survive.

That means we if have a bad day, it doesn’t affect us because that day we chose to be apathetic. At that given moment we don’t care – we just think it’s the same thing, different day. If a student hands me a paper with all the answers in incomprehensible English, oh well. If half the class won’t even try to listen to you teach, then so be it. If class is canceled for a staff meeting or some other nonsense, well, damnit.

It’s okay to be apathetic at times. It’s okay to admit it, and actually, it’s a good thing. A Peace Corps Volunteer must learn how to walk the line between empathy and apathy. In this case, opposites attract.

If I was empathetic about every situation I faced in the field, I would be depressed a good amount of the time. I would likely self-destruct –- boom — this is a two year commitment, after all. And sometimes those Peace Corps highs don’t kick in when ya need them to, so who wants to dwell? If you can’t feel happy, and you know feeling pain will only make it worse, why not shut off your emotions for a little? Stop thinking. Stop caring for a little. Still do the work you’re supposed to do, but without all the extra emotional baggage.

That doesn’t mean you don’t care about your service and it doesn’t make you a bad Volunteer. It just makes you realistic because we can’t save every kid or drastically change how our schools operate. It’s a blessing already that we get to have this two year experience, even with the struggles.

During those times when you’re feeling empathetic, embrace it. Cry when you have to – whether that is of frustration or heartache. Punch the air when you have to. Think about how much stronger of a person you will be in two years after you get through this. Instead of complaining, think about the small victories from the day or week.

Remember why you joined the Peace Corps. If there wasn’t a conflict, why would we be here?

PCVs, pick your battles wisely, but most importantly, remember that opposites attract. If we’re too empathetic, we’ll rip our hearts out. If we’re too apathetic, we shouldn’t be here. If we’re a mix of the both, we’re smart and will prosper.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Peace Corps realities: that one kid

I  don’t know why the Peace Corps sent me to South Africa or the village I’m living in, but I do think everything happens for a reason. It may take a while, but we usually figure out what that reason is. We find our purpose.

Finding one’s purpose can be a different path for every Peace Corps Volunteer. It can take days, months, years, or that moment may never come. As someone who is so interested in the individual – a person’s history, strengths and weaknesses — it usually just takes that one kid to show me why I’m here and doing what I’m doing. That one kid is that kid who gives you hope. That one kid who amazingly made it through a dysfunctional school system. That one kid who keeps trying and will fight against all odds to learn. That one kid that shows you that not all of your students will be engulfed in a repetitive cycle of poverty. That one kid you know you are going to have an impact on.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a surprise visit from a grade 7 learner at my school. Usually when older learners knock on my door, they want me to help them with homework (and do it for them). This time it was different. A tall boy stood at my doorstep and handed me a notebook. We had never formally met.

“Here, these are my English stories. I want you to read them,” he told me.
“Oh wow!” I exclaimed. “Thanks, I will definitely read them. I’ll give them back to you at school.”

I asked him for his name and off he went. I sat down and read Sebetsang’s stories. All 10 of them. I couldn’t believe what I was reading –a book full of creative stories with dialogues, characters and drama. His stories are almost as if they are a mini-South African soap opera with love, lust and revenge.

English stories

English stories

As I’ve said before, critical thinking isn’t taught here. Creativity is rarely heard of. The fact that a grade 7 boy is able to write his own creative stories is astonishing.

In my journaling efforts with grade 7, I asked them to describe what their homes looked like. Sebetsang wrote a lot, but also discussed the poverty around him and where he lives. It was the first time I had heard an answer from my whole school that was realistic because he clearly observed and inferred from his own experiences.

When I responded to his response, I told him that when I was his age, I loved to write. I would write short stories like he did. I even wrote a book like he has done. With time, I got better at writing. And even though I graduated from university, I still love to write a lot because it calms me down and makes me happy.

One of the reasons why I serve is to help students I work with find their passions (idealistically). I don’t know if I’ve really completed that goal yet, but at least I’ve been able to share my passion with kids. Now that I’ve met this boy, I know we can share a passion together and I can encourage him to hold fast to his dreams like my tattoo says. I realize that if I wasn’t here, he wouldn’t have had anyone to share his stories with or anyone that would take such interest in them.

Now it’s time to figure out how exactly I can work with him. I don’t want to waste his talent. He just came by today with a new batch of stories for me to read. Any suggestions on working with this young writer? Send them on over!

PCVs, never underestimate the impact you are going to have on at least that one kid in your village. It took just that one kid to show me why I’m in my village. I can assure you there is that one kid that will reaffirm why you are here. We may not be able to change the whole system, or influence every kid we come into contact with – but that one kid like Sebetsang is good enough in my books.

Yours in service,

Small heartLiz