As we tossed our black caps in the air there was a sense of relief, pride and accomplishment that we’d had made it. Well no, Peace Corps doesn’t end with the same cake, cards and cigars having made it through 12 years of our mandatory school system or 4 years of not mandatory yet highly recommended sober studies, but it does end with the same people the journey began with. The 50 people or so I met in Washington DC a little apprehensive about what they had just signed up for. My taxi ride alone to the airport made me question my judgment as I struggled with two not ideal for Africa rolling monster suitcases, as three future male Peace Corps Volunteers of SA24 piled in, two in safari gear, one with a beard. At that point I had no idea what two years down the road would look like nor did I know how cool each one of those 50 people in that conference room were and how much I would love in the end. Even the Peace Corps staff will tell you, “SA24 they were something else,” and I am so glad I got to take on this adventure with them, I’m not sure I would have made it otherwise. As we finished our close of service signing yearbooks, playing softball, celebrating July 4th, talking about frustrations we likely won’t ever have to deal with again I knew this place and these people were always going to be a big part of me and a big part of memories I look back on every day.
So as impossible as it would be to sum up my service and make up for my lack of dedication to my blog through one post I would like to leave my closing thoughts while I work on my developing cocktail party routine performance stories revolving around, well let’s make sure everyone has a full glass and no one needs a bathroom break. Sorry Dad, it is doesn’t mean we’re not eager to hear about how big that fish really was.
When I got on the plane to South Africa as every other future PCV does I committed myself to 2 years away from my friends, family, and a word that became part of my daily conversation, culture. I agreed to be flexible, open, forgo showers, forgo salary and learn to live outside my comfort. I can now say I have successfully completed my service and call myself a RPCV (Returned (yet presently unreturned) Peace Corps Volunteer) and receive all the after benefits like health care I can’t afford because I spent two years in a village volunteering, but they offer us the option. I joined Peace Corps in hopes of gaining a new perspective and allowing myself to grow as a person, becoming an RPCV and finishing my service became a later challenge, tired of growing, tired of gaining perspective and wanting to just place blame for the challenges taking place in this country. With my departure tomorrow I can’t help, but to reflect back at where I was when I arrived to who I am leaving, proudly I can say with only one monster suitcase. I’ve gone through a lot of up and downs, but having faced them has allowed me to come out higher.
Africa is an incredible place, I’ve jumped off the highest bridges, climbed the highest mountains, completed an ultra-marathon, learned a new language (and how to greet in about seven others), danced at music festivals, eaten the freshest of fresh meat (and some other things), learned to plant, learned to teach, learned to change the way people think, changed the way I see things, I became independent, I became aware and I became part of community I never knew I could fit into. South Africa is just as much a surprising, beautiful, and unique small part of this continent. So much is going on in this developing country with a myriad of challenges in part due to the diversity and disconnections between people and understandings. I lived first world, I lived third world and the biggest thing I am taking away is the relationships I’ve built in both places in the time I’ve been here. I’ve never felt more accomplished than I do today having finished Peace Corps, but I am ready for tomorrow. I don’t have any regrets, but it was the most challenging experience I’ve ever had.
South Africa is rapidly growing into the global network, despite the difficulties there are a lot of good things coming out. It is made up of inspiring people who live through this confusion each day and though I have dedicated 2 years to try to understand what goes on eager to help, it is nothing in comparison to a lifetime; tomorrow I board Flight 228, but our friends here live each day next to the colliding first and third worlds that coexist. The people who have made my experience begins with the volunteers I came in with who were always my safe ground, we went through this journey together though we faced individual problems. They are each so incredible, compassionate, intelligent and we spent endless nights in conversation over a beer or ice cream sometimes along the beach watching the sunset, sometimes in a rondavel with a candle when the lights went out. In my village I was the only white person within a 20 miles radius, my co-workers, my host family, my community protected and let me in, there were many cultural challenges, but they opened me into a new way of thinking. Outside the village I sought comfort from new friends we had made and depended on, who took care of us, some white, some black. They were easy to relate to and understood where we came from as we came from similar lifestyles, but were hesitant toward our life in the village. (As maybe our friends would be hesitant toward us living in many of the low income areas in the states.) I started to see the disconnecting worlds despite close corners they lived in with one another and I was somewhere in the middle. There was always an argument on race, but I think it probably had more to do with social class. I was the white American aware of the history, but untouched by the complications and experience of this time that took place not long ago. I listened to the Afrikanners, the whites, the rich, the poor, the blacks, the coloured, the upcoming youth, the elders who had fought, and the foreigners, each time I began to understand a little bit more about the difficulties and stress that existed in this developing country. My judgment faded, my understanding grew and I began to think of the way we live back home, it wasn’t so different after all. Our own country went through many of the same challenges and is still doing so today; many of the Indian Reservations have worse education, living standards and economic challenges than do these African villages. However, the word suffer is constantly thrown around in Africa, but what does the word suffer really mean to begin with, there’s almost Blackberry in every poverty stricken place. Are people using the word suffer in context to what is desired which plays a small role in real happiness, similar to the confusion between want and need (which is actually the same word in many African languages)? I could go on for hours about endless frustrations, but what really came out of it was seeing how Africa has grown into what it is today, seeing the different worlds, and the setting straight the misconceptions Africans have of America (the dreamland) and Americans of Africa (the pride land). That said I never appreciated my home so much having lived away from it, the government, my education, my culture. I developed the ability to be able to talk and relate to others and to do things outside my comfort. Regardless where people come from, opening that conversation and finding where we relate so that we can understand one another can overpower most of the disputes we face.
And so this brings me to the end of this story, I have gained more than I ever knew and I am grateful for the experience I’ve had and how I have grown. Now I have a grilled cheese to finish made by the wonderful Sue Beddy, in her suburban home in Johannesburg far from the my village hut where I am spending my last night, who supported us through each moment and praised us more than we felt we deserved. Also I plan on returning without any new tattoos, but a newly embraced preference of eating with my hands, which I used while consuming one of the most elegant meals I’ve ever been served during a dinner with African princesses, NBA stars, and Tim Shriver so allow me to argue the word savage, but please don’t challenge that by serving chocolate ice cream (let’s be reasonable).
Peace and Love,
newly instated RPCV