Sunday, October 17, 2010

This time last year...

This time last year, I had just “gotten off the bus,” as far as Peace Corps service goes. We had finished our 6-7 weeks of Pre-service Training, we were no longer living with our original South African host families, we had visited our permanent sites for a week, had recently been “sworn in” as Peace Corps volunteers, and we were delivered to our permanent sites. At this time last year, I was living in the girls’ dormitory at the college I’m assigned, had just spent all of the September break (almost two full weeks) battling one of the worst illnesses of my life (I very likely had H1N1), and had just gotten the news that a favorite aunt had died.

During all of this time, I was wondering, about my Peace Corps service and life in Africa, “Can I DO this?”

As education volunteers, we’re deposited into the South African school year at fourth term and we’re asked to shadow our South African counterparts, co-teach classes, and in general, learn everything we possibly can about the South African school system. In my opinion, fourth term is the WORST term to do any type of observation because most of the teaching and learning of the school year transpires in terms 1-3. Fourth term seems to be the wrap up term for the school year, as teachers are preparing paperwork and compiling final grades while the students are preparing for their final exams.

I show up all eager beaver, happy American Peace Corps volunteer, wanting to follow everyone around like a puppy and find myself avoided at all costs. When I finally realized that I would not be observing any teaching and learning in either of my schools, I shrugged my shoulders and offered to help out wherever I could. With my offer of help, I found myself buried under piles of papers to grade at the primary school and walking the aisles of exam rooms “invigilating” (bless you) at the college.

Now we’re a year later, I have my own classes to prepare for, my own papers to grade, other community projects to oversee, and no time for “helping out” with paper grading for others or for invigilating. My colleagues are disappointed but understand that I am “busy.” (All South African educators identify with being “busy.”)

This time last year, I was living in the girls’ dormitory of the college and hating every second of it. I never went away to college and usually like to be very far away from neighbors in general: living in the dormitory was more than I could bear. This year, I have my own place, very far removed from the students and am much happier.

I took comfort in the huge windows of my dorm room and how they showcased the South African sky at sunrise and sunset. Because the dormitory would become very busy in the evening, I found myself making an “evening constitutional” stroll each late afternoon, to rest my nerves and enjoy the sunset. Although I no longer need to flee the claustrophobic feeling of the dorm room, I still keep the habit of an evening stroll. My days in Africa are numbered (eleven months to go! ) and I need to see every African sunset I can while still in-country.

A favorite aunt died in October of last year, and when I received the news of her death, I noticed a lovely, lovely tree in bloom on campus. The common name for this tree t is “silver oak,” although the tree reminds me nothing of an oak tree. I love the bright blooms of the tree: they resemble combs and they’re brightly colored with beads of red-black nectar. The tree is blooming now and I walk to it every evening to enjoy the beauty of the blooms and remember my aunt. (The photo posted is of the tree in bloom last year.)

I’m known to lie down at any moment to fully enjoy a tree in bloom or luxuriate in newly-green, spring grass. (My sons have an embarrassing—to them!—story or two to tell of my unrestrained delight!) These past few days, some students and teachers have “caught” me lying on the ground, underneath this tree, staring up into its branches. The beauty of the tree takes my breath away!

It was also in October of last year that the dramatic “faux storms” of South Africa began. Every day, around 3:00 pm, huge, thick, dark thunderclouds rolled in, the wind picked up dramatically, and often there was thunder and lightning. You just knew Mother Africa was going to let go with the storm of all storms! All of this drama unfolded until about 6:00 or 7:00 pm each evening, then the clouds blew off, the wind died down, and the sun popped back out. I’d scratch my head and think, “Mother Africa is a blow hard.” (However, Mother Africa does let loose when she’s good and ready! And she doesn’t mess around when she’s good and ready!)

These dramatic “faux storms” are beginning now, this October, and I’m looking forward to experiencing them from my trailer/mobile home this year instead of being in the dormitory. I’m aching for it to rain: we all are. It hasn’t rained in my area since April/May.

This time last year, I was getting used to the varieties of creatures that shared my dorm room. I had mice, and alien-sized cockroaches, flies bad enough to nickname my bathroom “the exorcist bathroom,” and unfortunately, even a rat. Summer season brought waves of different kinds of insects: beetles, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, preying mantids. I was hording water because the dormitory seemed to lose water and power for days on end. This season, I’m living free of rats and cockroaches: two of my favorite things about my new home! Some waves of seasonal insects are beginning to come, but nothing overwhelming yet. I still hoard water, although I haven’t lost water or power in my trailer/motor home to speak of.

So I’m beginning my second summer season in South Africa, beginning my second and final year. I no longer ask myself if I CAN do this, this living in South Africa, because I KNOW I can. The question has shifted subtly however, from can I do this, to do I want to?



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