Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ke tswa Amelika


Alyssa Bonini
P.O. Box 24173
Mohlarekoma, Nebo 1059

Well it’s official: SA 25 are now PCVs!  I arrived at my site in Mohlarekoma, Limpopo a mere 5 days ago after swearing in on the 22nd and life has been a steady stream of pure yet manageable culture shock ever since.  I can already hear my English going down the drain, which I’ve interpreted as a great sign.  Either that, or I’ve gone overboard with my “Village Voice”.  Our “Village Voice” btw, is the manner in which we speak English with our community or “village” in which everything is said overly clear, overly slow, and overly accented to make ourselves easier to understand.  At least that’s the general idea.

The beginning of the end of PST was marked by our host family farewell ceremony/braai (Afrikaans equivalent of a BBQ) that was held at S.S. Skhosana where we had been having our daily sessions.  In anticipation of a crowd, a group of us volunteered to begin preparing food the day before and another group opted for arriving early the next morning.  Since I had a funeral to attend the day before and generally don’t mind mornings (ish) I volunteered to be one of the few to be picked up at the dark crack of 4:30am.  As some of you may have heard, things aren’t always the most timely and/or organized here in PCSA life and this morning was by no means an exception.  Long story short is that another PCT named Doreh and I ended up chasing the Peace Corps van around in the pitch black of Matshipe for an hour while it took an apparently scenic tour of every single street except the one we had been told to wait on.  Go figure! 

We got to S.S. and began prepping vats upon vats of chopped and marinated chicken and beef curries, chopping heads upon heads of cabbage, and preparing more pap than I would have thought imaginable.  My dear, amazing, irreplaceable host family had presented me with a traditional Zulu outfit the night before (much of it hand sewn by my gogo I suspect) which I timidly tried to rock that day.  With a relatively still freshly buzzed head in addition to the beaded attire and earings, I have to admit I was a little shy.  It’s a crazy sensation to look in the mirror and not recognize the person staring back at you!  Thankfully, my new look was well received by the throngs of family and neighbors who began to arrive.  Other PCTs were dressed up in traditional garb as well, many much more extravagantly than I. 

All in all the day was a success, with traditional Zulu and Ndebele dances and songs in addition to speeches of thanks and praise for the hospitality of the families that hosted us for our first 2 months in South Africa.  People will mention that the food situation was a complete catastrophe: unorganized, hostile, ill prepared, not enough food, what what) but in the end I think everyone went home happy.  And the PCTs went home exhausted, but happily tipsy with the beverages we had brought in anticipation of such a speed bump in the program J.

Swearing in on the other hand, flowed as smooth as butter.  Or in our case, margarine.  Peace Corps vans had collected our bags the day before while some of us were relaxing by the river in Bundu, so that all we needed to bring that final morning was ourselves dressed in our Peace Corps best.  Pictures were taken, and there were speeches of congratulations and excitement given to us by the Country Director, John Jacoby and his lovely wife, as well as a woman named Virginia whos title I have unfortunately forgotten but who nonetheless came from the embassy to represent the American ambassador to SA.  We sang the SA and USA national anthems, stood, recited an oath (the same oath that is recited by FSOs actually!) and voila! There stood 33 fresh-faced Peace Corps Volunteers!

Limpopo was the first province to depart, with those headed off to Kwa-Zulu Natal leaving the following morning.  Those Limpopo volunteers heading far north occupied one van, and those of us near or south of the capital of Polokwane were loaded into another.  I was the first to disembark.  When we reached Groblersdal I was intercepted by a colleague from my org who helped me with my bags (waayyyyyy too much stuff btw..to future PCVs: PACK LIGHT!).  I said a shaky goodbye to my fellow now PCVs who had become my family over the past 2 months, and had the moment I’d been anticipating since first I picked up a book of Peace Corps essays over one year ago: I stood on the side of the road, and watched the Peace Corps van disappear into the dusty distance.  Wow.  Now what do I do?

Many of you have been asking about my accommodation for the next 2 years here, so here we go:  I am staying in a little one room house that is located on the property of a family but separate from the main house.  My room is complete with running water (ish) and electricity, which was a COMPLETE shock for me when I came during site visit.  Bucket baths are still compulsory and for that reason alone I’m ecstatic about the no-hair thing.  (Other reasons include applying lotion, exfoliating, and the incredible feeling of a breeze and raindrops on ones noggin).  Everyone deserves to feel any or all of those things at some point during their life!  My family is made up of a gogo, and 3 of her adult sons (all in their 50s) plus her other 2 sons who come to visit often but have families of their own.  I’m pretty sure her daughter Julia lives here (she’s older too) and some other people who’s relationship to the family I really haven’t gotten down yet..To be continued! The family really is enormous though. Then there are the people who rent little living spaces like mine on the property, I believe there are at least 3 of these, if not maybe 4.  There are at least 3 children/ babies who live here permanently.  One is named Kimberly, whose mother is Mimi, then the other two are Nashela and Phillip Jr. whos father is as you may have guessed, Phillip Sr.  I think he is from Zimbabwe, as is Mimi, but Phillip and his wife studied in Cuba so they speak Spanish as well, which honestly is not helping my situation at all!  If we’re being honest here, I feel more inclined to speak espaƱol here than I have in my life and I have no idea why.  About 2 nights ago, I had a dream that I was speaking a mix of Italian, Sotho, Spanish, Afrikaans and English to my supervisor and somehow we were able to communicate.  My brain really needs to figure itself out.

On to the org!  As many of you may recall, the organization I have been placed with is called Mohlarekoma Home Based Care (MHBC) and offers a variety of services including to my knowledge: Palliative care, drop-in center (for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC)), community health outreach, and HIV prevention and awareness.  Right now I am participating with some of our “carers” in a one week-long training workshop given by one of our funders on pediatric psychological support for OVC.  Its amazingly interesting and provides me with an opportune chance to connect with the women I work with and observe how they work in a group.  It has also proven to be an invaluable opportunity for me to listen to their views, concerns, and passions regarding their work for MHBC, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, and the successes/failings of the Departments of Health and Social Development here in South Africa.  Wow. Just, wow.  We are truly on a different planet here.  Only we’re not.  And that’s the devastating part.  And that is part of why we’re here.  To help shatter the idea that the cycle of poverty, desperation, and HIV/AIDS is not YOUR problem or YOUR responsibility.  It is ALL of our problem.  It is ALL of our responsibility.

There is so much work to be done here, it is difficult to even construct an idea of where to begin.  These next three months before IST (in-service training) are to be spent assessing the needs of our communities into a formal CNA document, or Community Needs Assessment.  There are so many questions I want to ask about everything here, but the tough part right now is waiting.  I know I need to integrate myself wholeheartedly into my community before I have even a slightest hope of understanding it’s needs, let alone how to make myself of any use to anyone here.  Patience, patience young grasshopper!

So here I am, day five of service has successfully dipped behind a distant horizon of rolling brown fields and tin roofs and I’m sitting in my room eating a plastic fork-full of crunchy Black Cat peanut butter (PC SA staple #1!) and patting myself on the back for finally sitting down and catching you all up to speed with happenings down here in sub-Sahara.  I hope all is going dazzlingly for you wherever you are, and know that I miss you all like a bagel misses Philadelphia cream cheese. Which isn’t actually from Philadelphia I found out. Devastating right? I know, my world was unhinged also.

Peace, love, and Mzansi fo’sho.

From Left: PCTs Cara, Wilda, Stephanie, Jess, Alyssa, Teresa, Emily Gill,  (bottom) Sepedi LCF Lebo!

Isizulu dance

Host Family Farewell: Niki, Paige, Alyssa, Dr. Susan

Me and CD John Jacoby! (He says hi Chuck and Gay!)

This one's for you Lilly's dad! She's a lucky girl, her community is as splendid as she is!

Sunday, March 4, 2012



Thank you all for your patience with me getting this blog post up! Time here has been flying bye and I can’t believe PST (Pre-Service Training) is over halfway done! 

Yesterday we received our official Site Assignments and I’ve been assigned to Mohlarekoma Home Based Care near Groblersdal, Limpopo.  We have site visits this coming week after which I’ll be able to answer many more questions, but as far as I know right now I will be living in separate rondavel on the compound of a host family about 20 min walking away from my organization.  My org specializes in home based care for clients suffering from HIV/AIDS which includes but isn’t limited to HIV/AIDS Awareness and Outreach and palliative care.  My role as a PCV will be assisting in Project and Financial Management, as well as development of income generating skills and activities.  I’m nervous, but unbelievably excited!  I mentioned in my interviews with my APCD (Associate Peace Corps Director) that I would love to be involved with some sort of agricultural project as well while I’m here, and I hear that there’s a group of elderly women across the street from my org who are looking for a volunteer to help them do just that!  I guess they are quite the active and lively bunch, and I look forward to working with them!

So, let me try to summarize how it is that I arrived at where I find myself today.  Before I begin with my update though, I’ll preface that life here in the Peace Corps comes hand in hand with not one, but TWO new vocabularies: One is your target language (mine is Sepedi or “Northern Sotho” but more on that later..) and the other is a completely separate language of acronyms.  I’ll do my best to translate the both of them!

Let’s begin:  My classes official title here is SA’25, translating into the 25th group of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to be stationed here in South Africa.  The groups rotate between education and CHOP (Community Health Outreach Programs) which is what we are as SA’25.  At the moment SA’25 is comprised of 5 men and 29 lovely ladies, all ranging in age from 21 to 78 years old with a myriad of skills and experiences to contribute.  Apparently the gender imbalance is not uncommon for CHOP while education experiences a more equal interest between the sexes.  Additionally, we hear that the ET (Early-Termination) rate amongst PCVs in South Africa is abnormally high; we’ve already shrunk by two! (Brant and Brittney, we miss you almost as much as we miss indoor plumbing!!!! Xo) Training thus far has been pretty intense, I like to joke that we feel like government agents undergoing intensive training comprised of 4hrs x day of language plus 5 hrs x day of skills/safety/culture/medical sessions with a weekly cocktail of assorted vaccinations with our lunch.  No way any of us are giving blood any time soon!

Each of us has been placed with host families in the villages of Bundu and/or Matshipe in the Province of Mpumalanga.  I have yet to find either on a map but they are located about 5 min by kombie away from a town called Denilton, which I believe is around 1.5 or 2 hours away from Pretoria.. In which direction I honestly could not tell you!  Since my target language is Sepedi, I am living in Matshipe with the other Sepedi PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) as well as those learning Tshvenda who will be living in the Venda region of northern Limpopo.  All the other PCTs (Those learning Zulu and Tsonga) are living in Bundu, which is a slightly bigger village just up the hill about a 45 min walk away from us.  We all get together 5 days a week for session at a nature reserve with a sort of conference/resort space inside and thus are entertained almost constantly by monkeys and baboons that are frequently trying to steal our lunches, tape, markers, and pretty much anything else they can get their furry little hands on.  Adorable? Yes. Irritating and mildly upsetting when they charge you at full speed to grab the apple you’re eating? Absolutely.

My host family here is nothing short of amazing.  I have my own small room in a grey terra cotta house with my host M’ma, Ashma, my grandma (who I simply call koko or “granny” in Sepedi) my sister Thebogo (19), and my brother Sello (12).  They have given me the name Goitsimang (“hwee-tee-mahng”) which in Sesotho means “who knows”.  I was a little perplexed by this at first until I realized the deeper meaning, which is essentially “only God knows why you’re here/ only God knows what you’ll do and where you’ll go”.  I’d say it’s pretty appropriate for me at this point!

In our yard we have 2 mango trees, 2 pomegranate trees, 2 guava trees, and 1 lime tree, with the addition of a hefty flock of chickens that like to roost in one of the mango trees and have a nightly game of attempting to push each other out of it.  There is no running water in the house (in fact water supply to Matshipe and Bundu is commonly shut off so it is collected and stockpiled in buckets and tubs around the house for when the spigots run dry) and baths are taken in a plastic bucket in your room.  I was a fool coming here with long hair!  There is a pit latrine located out back for you to do your business in, and ours is actually pretty nice compared to many others I’ve seen.  For those emergency situations that seem to occur with semi-regularity here in Africa, the use of chamber pots / smaller plastic buckets is encouraged so that you avoid a mad dash to the latrine at 3am where you might be abducted by witches that fly around and snatch people up at night.  Additionally, there is a high chance you may have a run in with a robber or spitting cobra if you find yourself outside at that hour, so it’s best to throw your pride to the wind and make friends with your bucket.

In other news, there are goats and cows EVERYWHERE.  They wander down the red dirt roads eating grass, weeds and really anything else they come upon that looks appetizing. Every house I’ve seen here has a gate made of everything from actual gate to rusty old fence and sticks, to old mattress springs and wire to keep these wandering garbage disposals in their place.  That place is usually in the middle of the road blocking any whisper of traffic that happens to find its way into town.  It is overwhelmingly hot here, although it should be cooling down soon or so we’re told.  It tends to be a little bit cooler on nights when there are thunderstorms and the heat is replaced with earth-shattering thunder, lightning, and raindrops whose pitter patter on our corrugated iron roof sounds less like an autumn shower and more like a steel drum band.

I’ve gotten several lovely letters from ppl asking about food here, so here’s my perspective on that: PAP. It is to rural South Africa as pasta is to Italy.  Basically it’s just pure cornstarch, but appears and tastes like really congealed cream of rice/has the texture of polenta.  I’m actually a pretty big fan of the stuff!  It can be eaten with pretty much anything, and all you do is smush it into a little bite sized scoop with your (right) hand, load it up with whatever is on your plate (usually cabbage, beet root, beans, chakalacka, and or meat or some sort) and you’re good to go!  Things are generally canned, cooked and salted longer and with a greater intensity than I’m used to, but then you can’t have everything.  I’ve been steering clear of meat here (except when koko makes chicken feet or tripe that I sample while my family squeals and laughs at me in the background J) and I’m lucky enough to be able to pick a mango for bfast each morning.  Life as I see it is pretty good.

I think I’ll leave it at that for now.  I’ll have a phone and or modem here within the next couple weeks I’ll assume, although my internet access will continue to be sporadic until I settle into site at the end of the month.  Also, my address will be changing when I move.  I’ll still be able to receive post by way of Pretoria, but the likelihood that I will receive it might be slightly decreased.  It seems like mail is taking about 3ish weeks to get here from the States, so whenever I’m able to post my site address, please forward all mail to that location.  

ALSO!! If you haven’t heard, it helps a lot when sending anything larger than an envelope to mark the outside of it with a Bible verse so as to decrease the likelihood that it will be a victim of mail room theft.  This comes from advice given by past PCVs and appears to also affect the speed with which the mail makes it through customs!

Gabotse for now,