Peace Corps Blog

This is a blog of my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, working in South Africa. My job title is a capacity builder, which means I help increase the effectiveness of a local NGO that does AIDS/HIV related work.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Moment in Africa

South Africa hardly resembles the traditional images that come to mind when you think of Africa… the rolling savannahs and desserts, the tropical rain forest areas. In fact, the majority of the places I have visited thus far remind me more of home then of what I would envision when thinking of Africa. My site is nestled up against a mountain, which looks very much like New Mexico. Many of the open areas resemble the deserts of California. And as you climb into the mountains, such as the Drakensberg Range, you see rock formations that resemble Arizona and mountain lakes that bring back memories of Colorado.
Yet, every once and a while, there will be a view or a moment that resembles some traditional notion of what we expected South Africa to be like. Whether it is a stunning sunrise or the breathtaking moment when a herd of elephants crosses the road on all sides of our car. And when with other volunteers, we will pull out our cameras and comment that it truly looks like Africa. So I wanted to share one of those moments, when it was unequivocally a moment in Africa.

Three close friends and I were visiting Kruger National Park. Just to give a little background, Kruger is one of the largest game reserves in the world. It is about the size of Wales (and is now growing as fences between it and neighboring private reserves and other international reserves are being torn down). It is home to a vast variety of animal and plant life, scattered through out three major eco-zones and many sub eco-zones. Spending a day driving around Kruger, one will often pass from zone to zone and suddenly see a very different environment outside the window. Most of our time is spent driving around, looking for animals. But there are also well maintained rest camps, where you can stop for food or to stay the night.

So upon spotting a turn off for a baobab tree, we decided to go off and explore. The trees are stunning in size, and in formation, with extremely thick trunks (usually about 23ft wide). The trunks are used to store water (up to 32,000 gallons), allowing it to survive through the periods of intense drought. The one in Kruger did not appear to be in the greatest health, but gathering at the base, we were able to appreciate the magnificent size and stature of the tree.

We continued on the curvy dirt road, hoping to make our way back to the main paved road. Coming around a corner, we saw a feline approaching us. And three cars in the opposite direction crowding in to try and get a view of the animal who was walking straight towards our car. We had the good fortune to be the only car coming from our direction, so we had a stunning view. It was a mother leopard, and shortly after, we saw her little cub following behind in a shy manner. Although she seemed quite unfazed by the gathering cars, the cub would run off into the tall grass on the side of the road to hide every so often. The mother would stop and look back impatiently, waiting as the cub got its courage together to walk a little further along the road. You could even here it cry out – little meows emanating from the deep grass, where it hid. The pair walked right by our car, reaching distance from the window and continued on down the road. Simply said, we were awe struck. It had a beautiful body, dotted by rosettes of black spots on a whitish golden background. Its movements were quiet and full of grace. And interestingly, since then, I have learned that it is second most effective predator in Kruger (only outdone by the African Hunting Dog).

The leopard spotting completed the Big Five for us (well, three of us). We’d already seen lions, elephants, African Buffalo and a few rhinoceroses. And of course, we’d also seen giraffes, hippos, baboons, zebras, all sorts of gazelles and amazing birds of all varieties. While wandering the roads of Kruger, the amazing sights and beautiful landscape offer a strong reminder of the fact that we are living in Africa – in some ways, it is not so foreign feeling as we often think, but at the same time, there are some special, beautiful moments that are unique to Africa.

Photos (taken by my friends Abby and Megan)


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Xenophobic Attacks

I have not updated my blog in sometime, and in light of the recent news coverage concerning South Africa, I thought it might be appropriate to make a short post updating people on the situation here. And I promise a longer, more personal post in the coming few days.

South Africa has been prominent in the world news over the last few weeks. And, as is often the case when an African country gets global media attention, it is the result of violence and unrest. There has been an ongoing set of attacks being carried out against African foreigners living in South Africa. The attacks are taking place in some of the worst-off Townships, where people are deprived of wealth, employment and opportunity. Motivated by a sense of jealousy and a strong feeling of xenophobic, the South Africans living in the areas have raided and chased off foreigners from other African countries, such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, etc. The perpetrators claim that these foreigners are stealing housing, economic support and jobs that should instead go to South African locals.

The attacks have primarily be concentrated around Johannesburg and the rest of the Gauteng province, but in the last week, they have begun to spread to other poor townships in the North West province, the KwaZulu-Natal province and the Mpumalanga province.

The media here (and, to some extend, abroad) have been filled with graphic images and disturbing accounts of the extreme violence, including machete attacks and ‘necklacing’ (putting someone inside a tire, pouring gas on them and then igniting them). It is remarkably discouraging to hear these stories and see the awful violence that is surging, which has many parallels with the rebellious violence that existed during the end of the Apartheid era. Overall, over 42 people have been killed and at least twenty thousand people have been displaced. Huge refugee camps have been setup at police stations in Johannesburg and daily buses carry thousands of people returning to their home country, with the few things they can salvage from their home before being chased away.

The police have been attempting to control the situation, arresting over 400 people. Last night, in an attempt to bring around an end to the violence, president Mbeki authorized the army to assist the police in quelling the aggression and violence. They are expected to be deployed to the troubled areas today. Ideally, there presence might help bring about an end to the violence and scare people back into a peaceful state. But I fear the situation could just as easily escalate. The deployment of the army can result in increased unease and increased tension, as happened when the Apartheid government start placing larger forces in Townships.

I think that so much of this situation reflects peoples disappointment or sense of betrayal by the ANC government (African National Congress, which took over when Apartheid fell). The ANC made large promises about how South Africa would improve in terms of infrastructure, education and opportunity. And in many ways, the country has come a great distance – good water is available to more people, almost everyone has electricity and the economy has grown greatly. But in the excitement of a Black-led South Africa, the ANC promised more then it was possible to deliver. Combine that with an economic downturn, increased inflation, power outages and a huge influx of immigrants from Zimbabwe (fleeing Robert Mugabe) and from Mozambique, it is easy to see how tension has been continually increasing. The people most affected by these things turn to violence as a way to seek resolution, as that was what people were taught during the Apartheid era. Violence helped end that situation, so people have turned to it again, hoping that it will fix the current situation.

Of course, instead of helping, it is furthering the economic crisis here, driving down the South African Rand, discouraging incoming tourists and jeopardizing the 2010 World Cup (the first to ever be held in Sub-Saharan Africa) – all that, on top of the fact that tens of thousands of people are being displaced, hundreds are being injured and several more killed, where there possessions and shops are being looted. It is a remarkably grim and depressing situation, for a country that has so far achieved reasonable stability and good growth, following such a dark history and colonization.

How does this situation affect me? Beyond what I read in the news, there is little affect. And, to the best of my knowledge, this is true for all the Peace Corps volunteers. Volunteers are not placed in the townships surrounding Johannesburg, because of their already violent nature. Most rural communities do not even have a large foreign population. And on top of that, Americans do not really fall into the same competitive category in which other Africans are viewed. So, as it stands, the situation remains relatively safe for us volunteers. Peace Corps is monitoring the situation, informing us of new developments and, if needed, they will take appropriate steps to help ensure our safety.

For those interested in reading more about the situation, I would suggest: