Thursday, January 10, 2013

September - November 2012

Dear all,

So begins my documentation of the past four and a half months of my life. Get ready; it’s going to be a bumpy ride!

Jetting back to September , 2012, I will generalize and say that the month for me was marked by the departure of our dear SA22s.  Although I only knew a handful of them well enough to call my friends (and one in particular who I am lucky enough to call more than that) their absence has been indisputably noticeable and has given those of us who remain a reminder of the constant ebb and flow of volunteers that is an integral part of Peace Corps service.  Next to go are the 23s, who have already begun to steadily leave South Africa in pursuit of new adventures, opening up doors for the new SA27s who are due to arrive at the end of January.  Too all our dearly departed, “go well”, and a heartfelt welcome to SA 27! Yay CHOP!

October, admittedly, was the most difficult month of my service here so far.  As if hand in hand with the end of the school year, work began winding down and I found myself with an even more excessive amount of idle time.  Keep in mind that schools wouldn’t officially close for the next month and a half roughly, but you could feel the anticipation in the air that intoxicated the mind, body, and apparently the productivity of everyone and everything around.  Meetings were cancelled, classrooms were empty, and food was even sparser in our DIC than usual.  With nothing to do, time seemed to slow and I was left to simmer in a stagnant pool of my own thoughts and frustrations until the beginning of November when I gratefully left the village for a long-awaited Election Day bonanza in Polokwane.  A group of us PCVs congregated at the centrally located and wonderfully modern school/site of the lovely Susan Burton where we braaied, made deviled eggs, mac n’ cheese,  and boatloads of hummus with enough garlic to keep an army of vampires at bay for a decade.  Or any normal human for that matter :) 


Because of the time change (I believe we would have been around 6 or 7 hours ahead at this point) we spent our time upstairs in the apartment of one of Susan’s colleagues to soak in an all night binge of Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour, and 2013 Election coverage.  In an attempt to keep this blog apolitical, I’ll avoid the particulars of our viewing experience (including but not limited to those charged political statements that inevitably come exploding out of the mouths of even the most modest viewers on election night) and say that by morning, we were all delirious with lack of sleep but with a newfound and joyful drive to continue on with our work until the holidays.

Rejuvenated by good food, friends, and daily showers, I returned to site and was able to push through the month of November in much higher spirits than had accompanied the month of October.   My birthday weekend on the 10th was marked also by the christening (baptism) of my host sister’s baby boy Lesego on the 11th. The whole house was in an uproar for days preparing for the celebration.  The entire family seemed to have had made the trek home for the weekend, including my host sister who is also named Pebetse, and cousin named Manku, both of whom are in their mid twenties like myself. Having them around was like a breath of fresh air, and we spent the weekend goofing off and having fun in the sun surrounded by more family than I’ve ever seen together in one place with my own eyes.

On the morning before the christening (my birthday), I was busy baking my family a chocolate layer cake with citrus cream cheese frosting and rainbow sprinkles when I was interrupted by a knock on my door followed by hushed giggles.  Wiping my powdered sugar covered hands on a dish rag, I opened the door to find my family standing there with Pebetse and Manku in the lead holding a solitary red velvet cupcake with a candle pushed delicately into the middle.  Normally I’m not one for birthday celebrations, but as they began to belt out “Happy Birthday To Youuu!” I was so touched that it was all I could do to not embrace all of them at once in a huge hug.  Instead, I just stood there blushing with a bashful little grin on my face until they were finished and I managed to squeal out infinite thanks and explain that their cake was almost ready.
A short disclaimer about Sepedi birthday celebrations:
On your birthday, your friends and family shall not shower you with gifts and cake, but instead fully expect you to bake them cake and shower them with bottles of champagne. Typically, I was under the impression that the number of bottles of champagne purchased ought not to be of a lesser number than your age, but as I am a relatively impoverished PCV, I figured 4 would be enough :) )

As a follow up, I have to say that I love this birthday custom.  It completely erased the weird feeling I dread every year that comes from not wanting people to feel obligated to celebrate me. Now, I know that that’s not really what birthdays are about, and truth be told I adore celebrating other peoples’ big days, but I can’t help but feel awkward about the celebration of my own.  This new system let me off the hook and instead provided me with an excellent opportunity to spoil my host family with cake and booze. Along with a full day in the kitchen preparing for Lesego’s feast? What more could a girl ask for on her 24th birthday??

As anyone who knows me well could confirm, I’m a sucker for kitchen work and would opt to pursue life as a sous-chef if there was a way I wouldn’t be killed by the stress of it all first.  This being the only true trait I posses that conforms to traditional gender roles here in the village, the women of the kitchen wasted no time in commending me for my hard work on the skinning and chopping of various gourds and veggies and declared that they needed to marry me off quickly to someone in the family before I was taken away by another man and my ‘wifely talents’ were wasted elsewhere.  Laughing, I thanked them for the compliment and told them than I would consider any offer they had so long as they also found a way of transporting all of the cows required to pay my hefty lebola overseas so that they could be inspected and approved by my father in Oregon.  We’ll see if their determination can survive Delta’s baggage policy.

As far as I could tell, the christening of baby Lesego and the consequential party that followed went off without a hitch.  Everyone was full, drunk, and happy, and Lesego looked like a dapper young gentleman in a white silk suit with a bowtie. Sorry Oshkosh, babies have to flaunt it here in Africa!  I used the joyous occasion as a reason to break out my video camera for the first time in-country and am now working on editing it all together into a DVD for my family to keep and inevitably show to house guests for years to come.  It was so much fun for me to do, and will also help me remember the experience after I leave this place in one years time.  My how time flies!

After the weekend birthday/christening bash, I had two weeks of normal life before taxiing back up to Polokwane to join most of the PCVs in Limpopo for the 2nd annual Limpopo Thanksgiving at the game reserve.  To say that the weekend was gluttonous would be a colossal understatement. I try to justify the overindulgent couple of days by noting that a group of us participated in a 5k/8k Fun Run on the Friday night before our official “Thanksgiving”, but even with a time of 20min (which I was dumbfounded by given my current fitness level) I don’t believe it holds a candle to the sheer amount of food consumed in the following days.  There were deviled eggs, various dips, veggies, bruschetta, springbok, turkey, chicken, lamb, 3 different stuffings, salads, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy boats overflowing with creamy goodness, mac n’ cheese, baked veggies, wok – fried veggies, and really anything else you could possibly dream of.  Pie you ask? Ohhh god. Such pie came after the meal! Blueberry cheesecake, chocolate pie, pecan pie, apple pie, and others that I’m sure I missed due to what I can only begin to describe as “food blindness” i.e. a new level of food coma.  It was unreal. So unreal in fact, that I forgot to take any pictures. Shame. I'll try to remain more gastro-sober next year!
Panel of Speakers at World AIDS Day Event

Male Condom Demo

On Sunday, after gaining approximately 1 million KG over the course of 48 hours, I rolled myself back home for the next two and a half or three weeks before I would head out for one month of vacation in the Drakensburg Mountains and Cape Town.  The past few months had been spent on my part trying to facilitate the organization of a community World AIDS Day event that would serve as a fun way to talk with community members of all ages about HIV/AIDS and what we can do to reduce the stigma that surrounds the disease.  Admittedly, I was astonished when the big day came around on the 31 of November (the day before the official and internationally recognized World AIDS Day) and somehow, everything we had worked for fell into place.  Somehow, the food we “didn’t have” had appeared in copious amounts to fill every caldron, pot, and frying pan we had. The DJ, sound system, and HTCT tents (HIV Counseling and Testing) that “weren’t available” showed up.  The speakers who “were too busy to come” somehow found the time to make an appearance, if only about 4 hours late, along with about 50 community participants. 

Female Condom Demo
With everything in place we started the event, passing out hand made, red ribbon pins to every participant, and allowing time for prayer, song, dance, and health related presentations by community leaders and clinic workers about HIV and how we will address it within our community.  I contributed by demonstrating how to effectively use and dispose of both male and female condoms, much to the delight of my audience who erupted into fits of nervous giggles when I stood before them with my counterpart Debrah, who was boldly holding a massive cucumber I had bought for the occasion.  After that, we played a game provided in our Life Skills Handbook called “Condom Time Bomb” wherein condoms are inflated and filled with a question relating to condom usage. Music is played and the “balloon” is bopped around the crowd until the music stops and the person holding the balloon has to pop it and answer the question out loud.  It’s a really fun game to play, and not only shows how strong condoms are (dispelling the excuse that “they’re too small!!”) but provides a non-threatening environment in which people can familiarize themselves with touching condoms.
Condom Time Bomb
After playing a few rounds of this, we ushered the small children out of the room to play outside while the adults remained to watch an STI slide show.  Honestly, for the unadulterated horror I experienced in 9th grade at the hands of Ms. Gorman and her legendary “cauliflower penis” presentation, I was excited to impart the same information on to the adults of Mohlarekoma.  Sure, pictures of infected intimate areas are never pleasant to see, but they are crucial to a complete sexual education especially when HIV/AIDS is so prominent, yet simultaneously so invisible.  It’s important to realize the importance of condom usage not just to avoid pregnancy and HIV, but because contracting herpes, syphilis, and/or chlamydia isn’t an incredibly sexy thing to do either. Right kids?  As the sisters at Nmvolu Clinic say: “Wrap it or zip it!”.


With our WAD event miraculously accomplished, I felt a huge weight lifted off of my shoulders and the tingle of holiday anticipation surged to a golden glow of excitement.  Before I could leave though, I wanted to attend the graduation ceremony for children moving from crèche to grade R at Mmeshi Primary School. 

 Most of the small children who I have become incredibly fond of during my stay here would be participating in the ceremony, and I gladly offered my services as “official photographer” of the event. 

The ceremony was beautiful. All of the children were dressed in their finest as they ran around the drop-in center in their newly done hair and pressed black graduation robes.  Cute doesn’t even begin to describe how precious these kids were. After the learners received their diplomas and finished showing us their complete knowledge of stop light colors/meanings, shapes, animals, and vowels, they were presented with brand new yellow and red uniforms that would mark them as learners of Mmeshi. “They’re not your kids Alyssa” I kept on having to remind myself.  “Calm down, they’re not your kids”. 

 In complete disregard of my mantra however, I found my heart fluttering with pride as the children I’d spent some part of almost every day with since my arrival grow up before my eyes in a flurry of yellow and red.  It’s official.  I’m doomed as a ‘cool’ parent. Not a chance.


This concludes Part I of my four-month saga. Stay tuned for the Drakensburgs, Ballito, Christmas in Machipe, and NYE in Cape Town!



  1. This is great......I will read it over and over until Part II is out!

  2. I love it. So jealous I never made it to a Polo Thanksgiving, but really happy you've now got two under your belt. And I had forogtten your WAD event turned out so well. Yay planning, hard work, and the odd bit of luck! When do we get to read part 2???