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, September 15, 2008


As I mentioned in my last blog post, Thursday and Friday of last week were spent in Pretoria attending a grant signing ceremony hosted by the U.S. Embassy. I attended with Knowledge and Agnes from my organization, as well as a few fellow volunteers. The grant is called the "U.S. Embassy HIV/AIDS Community Grant," which supplies $10,000 in funding for the course of a year. My organization received the grant to help fund its five newest DICs (drop-in centers), where we provide food, education, shelter and psychosocial support to children infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.

Attending the grant signing ceremony was quite the experience. It was the first extended period of time I spent at the U.S. Embassy here in South Africa (the building itself is one of the biggest embassies and looks akin to a bunker). It was fascinating to speak with the employees of the embassy, who all had interesting jobs and a remarkably perceptive view of politics and relations in the Southern Africa area. In addition, it was revealing to see what a huge investment goes into foreign relations, political analysis, etc.

Just to highlight some of the experiences of the those two days - a time which is distinctly different from the average time spent in my village or around South Africa:

Timeliness. Although Knowledge and Agnes were an hour late in picking me up, we still made it to Pretoria and to the event with time to spare. Such timeliness is rare and so appreciated, on my part at least. So I decided to make Agnes and Knowledge tea. I even made Agnes some tea from Trader Joe's that happened to be a the U.S. Community Center. She was thrilled and called her granddaughter to announce, "I am in the United States now!"

Good food. Sue, Jo and Mokgedi, the embassy staff who organized the event, made sure to arrange for great food and refreshments. This included vegetable kebabs, chicken-tortilla wraps, delicious pastries, etc. So we ate often and well, which was a nice experience for Knowledge and Agnes, but I loved it too.

Jo's House. The grant recipients were all put up in a hotel, but us three Peace Corps volunteers were not in the budget, so there were no hotel rooms for us. Instead, we stayed at the home of Jo, one of the coordinators. Both she and her husband work for the U.S. government (in fact, her husband used to be a Peace Corps volunteer), and as a result, are provided a house in the nice Waterkloof neighborhood of Pretoria. Embassy provided houses are based on seniority and family size, and apparently Jo's husband has been with the department of agriculture for some time now (we did not actually get to meet him, sadly), as they had a stunning house. Having come here from several posts in Asia, there is remarkable Asian art throughout the house. All in all, it was one of the fanciest homes I have stayed in, and my description won't do it justice, so I took a few photos with my cellphone while there.

And Jo was a fantastic host, she spoiled us Peace Corps volunteers. We ate well, sat around in her living room talking and watching TV, and awoke to an amazing breakfast that was cooked just for us (she let us sleep in, telling us that the morning session wasn't critical for us). So we ate fresh omelets, cereal, juice, real coffee. Mmm!

Meeting embassy workers. For the second day, we spent time inside hanging out inside the embassy, learning about the reporting procedures and financial record keeping. But over the course of the day, I had a chance to talk to many people who work at the U.S. embassy, both from South Africa and from the U.S. They were such interesting people to talk with and meet, and provided a lot of very perceptive information on this country and its future. Of course, it was appropriate that I was with such people when it was announced that the corruption charges against (most likely future president) Jacob Zuma will be dropped on account of an outdated legal practice.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Life Update

Regretting my poor blogging skills as of late, I have decided to just post a nice list of things going on in my life these days. And also, I would like to say that there are a few blog posts in the works, which I will hopefully follow through with and post soon.

  • Hot - This is a one word update regarding the weather. It is the beginning of September, which one would expect to be somewhat spring-like. Yet it is quite hot these days, with heat-spells across the country that could reach 40 degrees Celsius (or 104 degrees Fahrenheit). My follow up: "I don't approve." I am hoping that this summer will have lots of rain and amazing lightning storms to match last summer, which provided some relief and cool weather in the evenings.
  • US Embassy: Community HIV/AIDS Grant - My organization has been awarded a Community HIV/AIDS grant, which will provide close to $10,000 towards the drop-in centers (DIC) where children affected or infected by HIV/AIDS can receive food, support and care within the community. The money will go towards a handful of new DICs, which are just getting going, and need assistance to buy cooking equipment (stoves, pots, pans), pay stipends for the coordinators and assist with transport costs. We learned of this grant several months ago through a referral by another Peace Corps volunteer in the area. It is exciting to see my organization benefiting from the grant program, and I will attend the awarding ceremony with Knowledge and Agnes later this week in Pretoria. During the ceremony, they will learn about the grant administration (reporting and tracking information), meet other people benefiting from the grant (which will hopefully lead to ideas being shared amongst organizations), and have a chance to meet the US Ambassador. I am excited to attend the event, and think that my organization is quite excited about the new funding that I was able to assist with in a small way.
  • Language Committee - I am now involved in the Peace Corps language committee, which is a group of volunteers seeking to improve and refine the language teaching strategies, so that future groups of volunteers will have better resources and will be able to make the most out of their language learning experience. Part of my involvement in the committee led me to visit the training for a new group of volunteers who will be starting service this week. Being there during there training offered me a fun opportunity to answer questions and share stories, as well as see what an exceptional job the new language trainers are doing. Over the next few months, I will be helping develop new lesson plans, which will hopefully facilitate the teaching of Sepedi for future volunteer groups, by providing greater structure to the language curriculum.
  • Training - Peace Corps has been scheduling a lot of training these days. Just completed a week of Life Skills Training, which is related to HIV/AIDS and how to educate people at your site about the disease. This includes behavior change education, rather than simply telling people the facts (that is, how do you actually convince people to start acting differently, which relates back to something I discussed before). Coming up in a few weeks, we will be meeting up together as a group again for the Mid Service Training, which will offer us a chance to come together, share stories and discuss what we hope to achieve with the next year of our service.
  • Graduate School - On that note, in some ways, Peace Corps is already starting to wrap up. Having been in South Africa for well over 14 months and having been an official volunteer for over a year, it means we are now counting down in some ways. With that, I am starting to do extensive research into graduate schools and graduate programs so that I can begin the application process in the coming months. The goal is that I will be accepted into a program starting in August or September of next year, and will head home in July or August (a two or three month early completion of service), so that I can prepare for graduate school. In many ways, that does not seem that far off (especially considering how many volunteers tell me that the second year goes far faster than the first, which is hard to imagine). Once I start applying to specific programs, I will post more details here.
  • Vacation - Inspired by the fun of spending last Christmas on the beach, several of my fellow volunteers and I are looking to do the same thing again this Christmas. Instead of just going to Durban this year, we are hoping to go into Mozambique and spend a little over a week relaxing on the beach, heading out to some spectacular islands, and other such fun. I can't wait!

That hopefully summarizes a lot of the big points going on right now. And soon I will have some more in-depth blog posts, looking at Peace Corps as a program, and discussing the important urban/rural dichotomy that exists within South Africa.

Hope everyone is doing well!