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Life After Peace Corps Plan (LAPC)

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Truth be told, my #1 plan is to hold a sloth.

I started this blog in May 2011, a few weeks after my undergraduate graduation.  I coined the name “Liz in Service” because I thought it sounded cool,  but little did I know how much meaning it would have for the next few years and the rest of my life.  I had drawn out a plan that went from AmeriCorps to Peace Corps,  but didn’t know what would happen after my three year service journey.  Maybe I’d love teaching?  Crawl back to journalism?

None of those ended up happening. However,  Peace Corps, as I wrote in my statement of purpose,  made me well-aware of what I needed to do afterwards: “Although my Peace Corps experience is invaluable and is teaching me more about our humanity and myself than I ever imagined,  a stirring sense of patriotism shook me this past year.  I feel the urgency to return to fighting social issues in urban America.”

It’s hard to explain this revelation — because I know there’s much more development work to do around the world. But working in the South African school system made me so grateful for American education,  regardless of its issues. To say it lightly,  I’m looking forward to experience a public school system that is (for the most part) trying to make reasonable decisions and policies.

Although education is an important social issue to me, I’m not a person who should be teaching — a newfound Peace Corps discovery.  Just because I’m passionate and have a bachelor’s degree in no way means I’ll be a good teacher. Teaching is an art and takes a special kind of person. I’m not that person. My passion leads to quite the contrary — to youth development and “behind the scenes” in education.

I decided to apply for Master of Public Administration/nonprofit management programs with a future goal of creating a nonprofit that specialises in journalism and leadership enrichment in urban areas. USC already does this, and gave me the opportunity to mentor in South Los Angeles. I’d like to make this idea bloom into something more widespread.

Through journalism,  urban youth would learn about local governance,  be inclined to write more,  gain the  confidence to speak up and ask questions,  celebrate the overshadowed good and stand against injustice,  which would build social capital.

I’ll always believe in the power of journalism. I know any kids who were able to report on his/her community would realise where they fit into the grand scheme of things.  I hope this knowledge would eventually inspire them to make change in their communities.

I had the choice of going back to USC or heading to New York City. I thought a lot about going back to doing youth development in Watts, and having a pretty solid understanding of the city, culture and politics. So simple!  But, it’s time to expand my horizons outside of the California bubble.

I accepted my offer at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service today, which was my top choice.  The program aligns with exactly what I want. Not to mention,  I’ve talked to several RPCVs and all had good things to say. (The RPCV network is pretty solid there and I already feel welcomed!)

I’ll be moving to NYC to start part three of the service journey. I’ll always be Liz in Service and will keep writing because I’ll still be chugging along in the public service world, but this time on the administrative side. Although I’m a delusional and idealistic mid-20-year-old,  at least I acknowledge that and know I need to be open-minded and of course improvise.

I’m going to grad school part-time,  so I’ll be looking for jobs in the education nonprofit field. My dream job, of course,  would be at City Year New York (especially because I now have a red bomber).

Give me a few years to come back and read this post and see how the LAPC plan is — if at all — is unfolding.

I’ll be saying goodbye to stipend living soon, but then will greet thousands of dollars of debt.  I’m digging myself into a hole that will be hard to climb out of,  but it’s all worth it to me because it’s for a purpose I strongly believe in.

See you soon, NYC! LA, I’ll always love you for your diversity, food,  sunny days,  culture,  courage, complexity and way of life. Until we meet again.

Yours in debt and delusion,
Liz

A month in photos: February 2014

  • Labeling library books and organising
  • Paige’s farewell party at her org; she moved from our area to Pretoria for a third year extension
  • Library opening #2 (and one more to come after even more renovating — third time is the charm,  right? )

Month 19: finding my niche

I laugh a lot.  Probably every hour or so — no doubt there have been times I’ve been in the back of a classroom uncontrollably laughing to myself and crying. That’s not because a kid did something funny. It’s because some text message I got from a PCV that range from a plethora of topics — stories from school, home, major Peace Corps fails,  or random thoughts that have absolutely nothing to do with South Africa.

An average day after school consist of me coming home,  curling up under my mosquito net, watching bugs ruthlessly die on the net, and shooting out texts to my peoples. Not only does it keep me sane and grounded,  but it also adds some spice to my ever-so-routine life.

Yes, we can make friends with our South African colleagues and families.  But, at least my case,  it hasn’t been easy to find someone who finds humour in the same things and someone I don’t have to censor myself around.  My PCV friends,  on the contrary,  can take it all. A text-by-text frenzy blowing off steam when I’m not in the best mood, a live update on shooing the hens and chicks out of my house, or a text-by-text update on how the lawnmower (I mean weed whacker that takes 3x longer to cut the grass) is encroaching upon my hut. Trivial things, really,  but you can always find a way to laugh at them.

It took a good while for me to find my niche in American culture.  I never felt like I fit in in college outside of the journalism world, and God forbid those treacherous middle school days!  Through my two and a half (omg!) years of service,  I have found people that are passionate about the same things as me, have similar senses of humour, share dreams and aspirations and all that jazz. I have finally found my niche,  and I’m pretty happy about it!

The Battlefields cluster — my closest Volunteers geographically — recently said bye to our mama hen, Paige, who was in the cohort before us (SA 25). Although she is not going back to the States and rather extending for a year in Pretoria with the CDC, her farewell party made me think about the relationships I have with her and other PCVs. (And not to mention,  if it weren’t for mama hen, the little chicks of SA 26 would have never found their way in the beginning.)
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Battlefields last group trip to our beloved shopping town Nquthu

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Paige’a farewell function at her organisations;  all her colleagues singing and prancing around the yard

Peace Corps and City Year combined really helped me understand who I am as a person and what I need to make me happy, which is generally being around likeminded people and doing something that will help improve our world. I know that I will never feel like “I don’t belong” anywhere ever again because I know where I stand.  When I return to America at the end of July/early August, I’ll be entering a graduate school programme (public administration), which will be seeping with AmeriCorps alums and RPCVs.

Extra gratitude this month for all who make my service just that much more worth it.  Thank you for the comic relief, the support,  and keeping me updated about things like the whereabouts of the chickens on your lawn.  I love ya’ll!

Yours in service,
♥ Liz

A month in photos: January 2014

  • Opening prayer at school; school shuts down for a day so the community priest,  learners,  teachers and parents can pray for the upcoming school year
  • Sports day 2014
  • My counterpart’s creative art project with grade fours using some beads my friend Amy left from her visit
  • Bruce Springsteen concert in Joburg! This was his first time playing in South Africa. Unfortunately, I did not bring my camera or phone to the concert,  but got a few pictures before!  The concert was incredible – he played most of my favourite songs while we danced in the rain!

Everyone can learn a lot from my sister

When I first arrived at my host family’s house way back in September 2012, I had been told I had a sister the same age as me. She was nowhere to be found.  It wasn’t too soon until I found out that she had been admitted to the hospital due to a miscarriage at seven months because of high blood pressure. When she returned home, I remember meeting her for the first time. It was somber moment,  as we quietly sat next to the wood stove to warm up. I knew she was happy to meet me, but it just wasn’t the right time.

As months went on, obviously my relationship with her grew. She told me how much she wanted a baby, and how last time it just had been the wrong time. I reassured her everything happens for a reason.

Late March, I got a knock on my hut door. It was her beaming with joy, delivering the news that she was pregnant again. Her and her boyfriend were delighted. Since then, she has taken every precaution possible and been to and forth from the doctor’s. She was determined to make it right this time with anything she had control over.

A few weeks ago, she had her second miscarriage at seven months in. The doctors cannot give her a reason why.

I sat on writing about what’s been going on with my family for quite some time. Mostly because it’s personal and everyone deserves a certain right to privacy during challenging times.  But as the weeks have gone on, I’ve realised more and more that I should write about this – and in fact, celebrate my sister.

I know an American reading this may say 24 is far too early to want a kid so badly/have one. I completely agree in our culture. But in her culture, it’s pretty incredible she has waited this long. All of her friends have at least two children. Not to mention, her boyfriend has planned for it and saved money. This is something that is rare, as usually babies just come along as something that “just happens”.

My sister would make an incredible mother; my mom would be the fun-loving gogo. My sister’s boyfriend and his family would be very involved.

She knows that. We all know that. Then we look around our community and see so many young teen mothers, kids who were unexpected and being raised by gogo at home with young mothers living elsewhere or too busy, absent fathers, and come back to our perfect set up. My sister and the two families involved deserve a little one. So why can’t it happen?

They say God only knows; I say everything happens for a reason and sometimes it takes a while to see what that reason is, good or bad.

Life. That’s just life, right?

Well, that’s my sister’s attitude even after going through this twice. She has said to me: “There is nothing I can do about it now. I must move on. That’s life.”

She carried the baby after the miscarriage for three weeks and gave birth to a stillborn. I never heard her complain once about being in pain. And when doctors were telling her conflicting information, she sat there calm and collected. Of course she cried, and seeing her at the funeral was heartbreaking. However, she has gone on with normal life as is, and as if nothing had happened.

It’s not that she doesn’t care that it happened. It’s her reaction to the situation within her cultural norms – Zulu women are brave, extremely strong and have a high threshold for pain and suffering. My sister falls directly into this description, and may be just one of the strongest people I’ve met.

My sister is one example of a woman in my community enduring such strife with a smile on her face. I can only imagine what other women take and handle.

Everyone can learn a lot from my sister. Life happens and sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way you planned, but you may have no control over it. You’ve got to pick the pieces up and keep on going, just like many Zulu women do.

Amandla / strength

Month 18: suck it up kid, it’s needed

[Insert post about being on vacation for ten days in America.
Oops! I mean Little America. No. That’s not right. Oh!  The touristy part of Cape Town sounds more like it.]

Vacations don’t really relate to my service and thus, I don’t see the point in writing about them. But hey! School has started up again. I’m ready for my last six-seven months of service!

What do those months entail, you wonder?

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That. Cataloguing, categorizing and shelving all the books we recently received. I’ve catalogued 1,000 books or so now, and I’m only half way done. I can power through one box (about 100) books a day. Sitting in the same position.  At the same table. Listening to the same music. Like a robot.

Yes, it drives me crazy. I’m not the type of person to have a desk job. (Unfortunately, my co-workers can’t help me with this process because it involves Microsoft Excel; many still don’t know how to use a computer.)

But in the Peace Corps,  sometimes you just have to do things you don’t enjoy because your community needs it. My school needs a functional library, so I gotta suck it up!

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Boxes that are done

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Boxes to go

Anyone want to take a wild guess how long this will take me?  I’m hoping to have them all numbered and typed into Excel by the end of January. (Winner gets Shania Twain’s autobiography from the 90s I found in a box!)

At the end of the day, we PCVs understand why we are needed. We are flexible and open to such projects because we may have the time, resources and skills to do so and help our communities take a step forward.  We forget about the mundane process and remember the end result. This project is quite a big leap forward for my community. And after all, that’s why I’m here, even if it can be boring sometimes.

I’ll keep chugging along until these books are done. After that, guess what? We’ll be getting another container of books for more Peace Corps schools that didn’t benefit from our first container. No joke.  This is possible through a partnership with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, Books for Africa and Peace Corps South Africa and a generous grant from the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation in Nigeria. I’m taking the back seat on this and just gave the DOE a list of Peace Corps schools to deliver to in due time.

The book craziness will dwindle soon; I know I have to plan more activities that are on-the-spot, hit the heart rewarding with my favourite colleagues and learners.

I plan on doing after-school youth development activities with my grade six girls, an arts and crafts club with my counterpart, teaching my principal computer skills, helping make English assignments for grade 4 and 5 and any other fun activity I can whip up. I’m not teaching a class this school year and will be focusing on secondary projects. (Hallelujah!) Sky’s the limit for project ideas!  If you have any for me, send ’em my way.

On the Peace Corps timeline, seven months is nothing. (Only two school terms until my close of service conference.) Wait, what? TIME! Hai bo! Uyaphi?! Stop it! Where are you going?

Back to the grind refreshed and motivated.

Yours in service,
♥Liz

A month in photos: Summer vacation (2013-2014)

  • Traveling around South Africa with two friends from America, Amy and Charlotte. First stop – Hluhluwe Game Reserve in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, my site, Durban and then Little America aka Cape Town! Let’s just say I would rather use public transportation than drive around this country. Not to mention – Cape Town is beautiful, but a little too American for me. Time to head back to the place I know and love – the village!
  • Photo credit: Amy Elizabeth Anderson (C)

Trip to the magical land of mangoes: Manguzi!

  • Katrina and Michael’s Grassroot Soccer camp in Michael’s village
  • Shawn’s site
  • Michael’s site (sadly all the gorgeous pictures from Katrina’s site and walking to the Mozambique border were were deleted because of a computer virus)
  • Lots of sand and mangoes

Photo credit: Amy Elizabeth Anderson of Half Moon Bay, Calif. (C)

School’s out for the summer!

Month 17: an American visitor understands that the struggle is real

I try my best to keep in touch with people and post photos from my experiences out here in South Africa, but no one will ever understand the extent of my Peace Corps experience until they see it for themselves. This month I’ve been able to share this life-altering, strange and amazing experience with a best friend from America.

I had the delightful pleasure of picking up Amy, a friend from my hometown Half Moon Bay, from the airport at the end of November. We barely recognized each other, but after five minutes it’s like I never left. She’s with me until mid-January and wanted to come to South Africa before December vacation to actually get the Peace Corps experience. She’s gotten that, alright!

After picking Amy up from the airport, my friend Kelsey and I took her to dinner at our favorite restaurant in the urban areas, Mugg and Bean. We chowed down on burgers, salads, drank cider and got some damn good soft serve ice cream as if we were in an American city. We dipped our feet in the Indian Ocean, took some showers and used WiFi to complete grad school applications. At this point, Amy was in a daze – wait, we’re in Africa? Where are we? I told her to just wait to see how drastically different urban and developed areas are from the rural areas PCVs serve in.

The struggle is so real began when it was hell trying to find my public taxi from Durban to Nquthu (I’ve been here for more than a year and still cannot figure out how to get from the backpackers I stay at in Durban to my taxi rank.) Amy’s first public transportation journey went over smoothly, but she was in culture shock when she got to my African shopping town Nquthu.

We then came to my village for about two weeks. Amy ventured to school with me, met my staff, and bonded with my learners. My staff named her “Gugulethu” (Precious). I’ve been so warn out since this book project that I took a backseat for most of Amy’s visit, sat on my phone and let her take over all my library work. I desperately needed a resting period before snapping and she got to “volunteer” and see my Peace Corps projects in real life; it was a win-win situation. She ate some Zulu phutu, chicken and beans, loved it, witnessed the typical South African morning prayer and song, and slowly learned Zulu greetings. She’s also traveled to town with me a few times to pick up groceries and experienced the harassment I go through every time as the only white person (and not to mention woman). So far, she’s been proposed to and been asked how much she is worth.

On the home front, I taught her how to bucket bathe, hand wash clothes, use a space-ship looking outhouse, how to pee in a bucket, scare away chickens and cows, kill mosquitos and other creepy crawlers, love Zulu house music and understand more or so how things operate culturally here. We cooked a meal with my host sister and have been watching my favorite South African soapie Generations. I took her to Lion King-looking rocks and gave her the history of my village through the Lion King while playing Lion King songs in Zulu (i.e., this is where Mufasa died, this is pride rock, etc.) She’s learning how to live with practically nothing but a book and good company, and is enjoying it.

After school ended, we headed up to Manguzi in Northern KZN. Manguzi (which means Land of the Mangoes) is another shopping town where PCSA clustered Volunteers around. Three of my good friends Shawn, Katrina and Michael live up there and I had yet to visit their sites, although they have all been to mine. Katrina and Michael hosted a Grassroot Soccer camp, similar to the one I hosted in June. I figured it would be a perfect time to see everyone’s sites, help at their camp and Amy would also get see other PCV sites and PCV projects!

I have heard so much about all of their sites that it was nice to finally see their daily lives in person. Katrina and Michael’s sites are very rural and isolated – you have to walk down small sand paths 15 or more minutes to get to the next property and could easily get lost. It was different than anything I had ever seen before and how I would now define the “African bush”. Goats woke us up at Katrina’s site two days in a row, screaming in distress for an hour or so at 5 a.m. in the morning. As soon as the goats started yelling, I could not stop laughing because I knew Amy hated every moment of it (the struggle is so real). We walked to the Mozambique border at Katrina’s site in search of elephants that freely roam her area from time-to-time (but didn’t see any), searched for ripe mangoes at Shawn’s site (and found a few!), and saw a Science Centre in Michael’s village, where they hosted the GRS camp.
Michael’s community counterpart started a Science Centre at an old tavern (bar) this past year. The Science Centre has science activities for the rural youth, recently benefited from our Books for Africa project with new science books and hosts science fairs once in a while. The PCVs in Manguzi usually run booths at the science fairs and Michael spends a lot of his time outside of school to help develop the Science Centre.

The GRS camp was held inside the Science Centre and the kids slept overnight in different rooms that Michael’s counterpart owns. Thirty-three kids were a part of this camp and were from either Katrina or Michael’s village. Katrina’s community counterpart did all the Grassroot Soccer sessions in Zulu. Katrina, Michael and their counterparts ran the show, Amy took photos, and Shawn and I helped with the backstage work like doing dishes, preparing lunch, etc.

The camp was stressful on Katrina and Michael’s part because Michael’s counterpart didn’t follow through with her words most of the time (the struggle is so real). However, the kids still had a great time and were very well-behaved. I was in shock about how respectful their kids were compared to mine at camp. We even had a fun, totally planned session with random American dances and no music (pretty much all of us just looking insane), Heads-Up 7 Up and yoga!

Through this experience, Amy was able to understand how challenging it can be to run such huge projects as a PCV because we have to rely on South Africans to move projects forward and always have to be ready to improvise. I don’t think anyone from my American life will understand the extent of the struggle here except Amy.

“The struggle is so real” is mostly sarcastic; every time something strange happens – even if it’s just a chicken trying to get into my hut — she looks at me and says, “The struggle is so real.” I’m just thrilled someone finally will understand what this struggle really entails!

Thanks to Shawn, Katrina and Michael for hosting us! We’re back in my village for a week then will be heading up to Pretoria to start our real vacation and pick up my City Year teammate Charlotte from the airport! Who’s lookin’ fly, who’s lookin’ fly? Markham in South Africa gonna be lookin’ SO FLY! After sleeping on the concrete floor for a while (I’m a good host, however, and have given her my bed for the duration of her stay at my home sweet hut!), I think my American visitor is ready to have a shower and comfortable bed again.

This may be my favorite month of service – for multiple reasons, but definitely because I’m always uncontrollably laughing. Every time a cow moos or a rooster crows, I die. Yes, Amy, this is my life.

Miss you Half Moon Bay! Sorta?

Love to our peoples,
Mpho and Gugu