I am officially a Peace Corps volunteer now! The first phase of the training process has come to an end, commemorated by a swearing in ceremony at the American Community Center in some very wealthy neighborhood in Pretoria. Dressed in all our best clothes, we managed to pull ourselves together for a very nice ceremony. The event was attended by a number of our future organizations, as well as government workers from the Department of Education (representing the two Peace Corps programs in South Africa: NGO/Community Development and Education). The whole experience was quite nice and the volunteer representatives who were elected to read speeches did a superb job. All together, it was a surprisingly moving experience, as I realized it was kicking off the adventure that will comprise my next two years. Ironically, I found the whole thing a lot more meaningful then my graduation from college.
That could in part stem from the fact that there was a slightly sad undertone to the whole event. After spending nine weeks in training with the forty other volunteers in the program, we had all grown close, spending almost every day together. To finally say goodbye to the people who had provided support and company for so long was surprisingly difficult. Of course, we will remain in touch via cell phones and eventually begin traveling together.
My swearing-in experience also had an added aspect of stress. After a fun night at a nice hotel (the Farm Inn, which had lions and other wildlife and beautiful gardens), I was awoken at 6AM by a message from my supervisor saying that they could not arrange to come to Pretoria to attend the ceremony, much less pick me up. And public transportation was definitely not an option (the amount of stuff we had was ridiculous, due in part to the amount of things the Peace Corps had loaded us down with). After drawing a blank for other options, I was finally offered a ride with another supervisor in the area who had rented a bus, so there was plenty of room.
The bus only got me as far as Jane Furse, where four other volunteers will be working (and where three existing volunteers were just completing their service and about to return home). One of the volunteers about to complete service put us up for three nights, offering us great food (pumpkin bread, pancakes and curry) and passing on some of her stuff, which she would no longer need. The whole weekend provided a delightful little break before finally diving into work at site. Most interestingly of all was Saturday, which we spent at an unveiling party (where a tombstone was unveiled). Many people in the community spoke English very well, so I ended up staying for almost six hours after the lunch, just talking.
Finally, after seven nights of having to switch beds every night, I arrived at site. My supervisor was finally able to pick Cole and me up on Monday. So over the next two years, I will be working in a small town outside Polokwane, in the Limpopo province. Around 30,000 people live in the village, but it is divided into a number of neighborhoods that are spread out (some beyond walking distance) – rural sprawl. The landscape is stunning. My home is nestled up against the mountains, with an outstanding view across the river valley. Although there has not been any rain in many months, things here are getting green. Rumor has it that it will get surprisingly hot in the coming months, but the last few days have been cloudy and breezy, making for superb weather. The first night back, I listened to the roaring wind and the CD Baro, which Ben gave me before I left.
My living situation here consists of staying with a host family. My host-mother is the secretary for the chief and she is raising her grandson, who is five years old. Her daughter (the kid’s mother) will be here for the rest of the month, before she returns to her school in Gauteng, where she is studying to become a nurse. I will be living in a small room in the back of the house with a separate entrance.
Finally, my organization is a well established CSO (Civil Society Organization), which is just a fancy name for an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization), which is another fancy name for a nonprofit. The organization primarily consists of caregivers, who visit households and individuals either affected or infected by HIV. There are also a number of IGAs (Income Generating Activities), which seek to create employment and provide training and real work knowledge to people in the community. With high unemployment and poverty in the area, creating jobs helps to boost the economy and provide people skills and experience needed to get a better job in one of the cities. To this end, the organization runs a bakery, makes fencing, makes and bottles juice and does sewing. On top of all this, the organization also has a village bank (helping people to save money) and runs a number of drop-in centers, where children can come to get nutritious meals, education and some physical activity. Such drop-in centers are meant to help OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children), which is a broad category used to refer to those children whose lives have been made more difficult by the effects of HIV/AIDS in the area.
With this post, I hope to truly kick off the use of my blog. I will soon have my own internet access (and will begin posting photographs, if the connection is fast enough). I will try to post relatively often. In addition, I hope to write some of my experiences from training (the last nine weeks) and will post those as well, since I know have access to my laptop and the internet.