Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Have I really been at my site for a month already?

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been in South Africa for over three months now. In some ways it feels like I just arrived last week, but in other ways it feels like I’ve lived here for years.

Of course, during the first two months that I was here I, along with 29 other Peace Corps South Africa volunteers, were participating in Peace Corps training. I made a few brief updates to my blog that discussed my training experience, so I won’t go into any more depth about that here. But to summarize, a) it went well, b) I studied Zulu and passed my language test, c) i made a lot of good friendships with fellow Peace Corps volunteers and with South Africans who I lived/worked with, and d) I was sworn in as an official Peace Corps volunteer on April 3rd.

After swearing in, I moved from our training site to my permanent site in the rural area of Swayimane in the KwaZulu-Natal province. I’ll be volunteering with two young organizations that work in Swayimane. One is called Zimele, which means “to stand on one’s own feet” in Zulu. Fittingly, Zimele helps organizations, groups or people, and individuals to move towards standing on one’s own feet instead of relying on outside assistance for survival. Zimele works in Swayimane, but also has some programs in other areas of the province. One of the main ways that Zimele assists people is by establishing savings groups with small groups of women in the community. Each woman saves the equivalent of about $.50 a week and is then able to withdrawal or take out a loan in times of need or in order to purchase an expensive item that her family needs.

The other organization that I work for is called Ithembalethu. It is the organization in Swayimane that Zimele assists and works through to help individuals here in “the valley.” Ithembalethu is so young that it is still in the process of registering as an “official” Community-Based Organization (CBO) so that it can receive grant money. However, it will likely complete that within the next month or two. Other than partnering with Zimele, Ithembalethu has 3 home-based care workers, distributes about a dozen food parcels to needy families, and has established a few community gardens.

So, after all this you are probably wondering exactly what it is that I will be doing during my two years here. Well, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. The first three months at my permanent site are to be mainly spent getting to know the organization and the community better so that future projects can be as successful as possible. Therefore, I’ve spent significant time this past month meeting local government officials, meeting staff at the community clinic, learning about the different projects that my organization has undertaken, and just in general getting to know people in the community. Hopefully, through this process I’ll be able to learn what projects I can assist with or initiate during the rest of my two years here.

However, when I have not been doing that I have been helping to build a library for the community. Somewhat ironically, the woman who is donating money and books for the library is a former Illinois State University librarian/professor named Dorothy Kennett! It is most definitely a very small world. She is here preparing the books, and we’ve had a good time sharing stories about ISU/Bloomington-Normal, Illinois and talking about American sports and politics. If that isn’t surprising enough, my job in building the library is one that is best described as the “Master” Carpenter. While the building the library will be housed in has already been built, all of the bookshelves and counter-tops needed to be built. Now, with the help of a few other volunteers and workers, all of the bookshelves have been assembled and are in the process of being finished (stripping being put on the edges, backs attached, bolting them to the wall, etc.) Most of you who know me know how little experience I have doing this type of work, so it has been a learning experience, but enjoyable and successful nonetheless. The library is scheduled to have its grand opening on June 6th, and I think everything will be completed by that time. I will post pictures on my website of the library when it is finished.

Finally, you may still be wondering what it’s like to live and work here in rural South Africa. Well, all of the people here are very welcoming, friendly, and very willing to help me find my way if there is something I need help with or don’t understand. Specifically, my host family is great. My host parents are both in their early 50s and there are 4 children still living at home (2 of them are theirs, 2 of them are their close relatives). Three of the the children are in their upper teens and the other is in third grade. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them and spending time with them this last month. They’ve also been a great resource for me when I have questions about Zulu culture, the community, South Africa, etc. I could not ask for a better living situation.

The other part of living here in rural South Africa, which is not quite as positive, is the transportation situation. Swayimane is a very large and spread out community with, by some estimates, upwards of 100,000 people living here (I think that estimate is high, but it is still eye-opening nonetheless.) Counter that with the fact that, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I am not allowed to drive, and it is very hilly which makes biking impossible and walking tiring and you can see why getting around is not the easiest thing to do. As an example, I walk 30 minutes to get to the “downtown” part of Swayimane. Of which, roughly half of the walk is at about a 45 degree angle downhill and the other half is at about a 45 degree angle uphill. For longer transportation, I rely on the the local mini-buses called khombis or on my supervisor who owns a vehicle. Thus, I’ve had to learn to plan my days around what type of transport is available to me. It hasn’t been easy to often be dependent on others for getting around, but it has been eye-opening to experience one of the difficulties that rural South Africans face on a regular basis.

Well, that's all for now. Have a good week!

No comments: