Saturday, August 27, 2011

So, what happened? The rest of the story

Thank you all for following along on my Peace Corps South Africa experience.  I have returned to the United States of America and am home now. Although I nearly completed my 27-month commitment, I left South Africa and my Peace Corps assignment abruptly in June, 2011—3 months shy of my “close of service” date.  Many of you are asking why I left early and suddenly.  So, I will tell you why and then “close down” this blog.  Since I’m no longer living in South Africa, this portion of my journey has ended.  Thanks for following along!

Before I begin, I must qualify this blog, because I’m reluctant to say anything negative about my Peace Corps experience, Peace Corps South Africa, and even the Republic of South Africa.  I must further qualify the fact that my Peace Corps South Africa experience was mine alone and there were many, many (if not all) volunteers in my group who experienced nothing close to what I did.  So, before you lambast me with admonishments and accuse me of spouting negativity, please know that I am claiming my experience only, and my thoughts, feelings, and reactions all resulted from my biases and understandings of the world.  These are mine and no one else’s.

Two years ago, I was very excited to learn I would be serving Peace Corps in the Republic of South Africa.  Like many, I was enthralled watching the fall of Apartheid and then amazed by election of Nelson Mandela and his attempt to bring South Africa into a democracy.  I bought all of  the excitement of  South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation” and couldn’t wait for my Peace Corps tour of duty.  I was especially excited to learn I would be working with the schools in rural regions of South Africa to help with the reconstruction of a school system devastated by  Apartheid.

My enthusiasm for living and working in South Africa quickly waned after my arrival.  In my rural community, I felt unwelcome and unwanted—and felt so for all of my two years in Africa.

The people in my community—a community in a rural area--seemed to strongly dislike three specific qualities in a person: they seemed to dislike women, they seemed to dislike Americans, and they seemed to dislike white people.  For those of you who don’t know me, I am a middle-aged, white American woman.  (The middle aged designation holds weight as well, and I’ll also speak of  it.)

South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the world. The reasons for this are certainly debatable and of  a complicated and complex nature, but I believe this may be so because I experienced  a culture of hatred of women in my community.

Women in my community and in my school were treated as inferior (to their male counterparts) at almost every level: so much so that the vice-principal and heads of departments at my school (all women) would lower their eyes and soften their voices whenever my male principal walked into the room.  At one point it was suggested to me by my female colleagues that I would have an easier time in my school if only I would “submit” to the principal. I negotiated these realms as best I could but would learn later that I had offended my principal consistently because I, trying to be respectful and polite, would look him in the eye when I spoke with him and tried to speak very clearly.  In this way, and unbeknownst to me, I was a threatening presence to him from the get-go.  (Peace Corps prepared us to encounter “cultural differences” in our South African home-stays and at social functions, but I felt unprepared to deal with these gender-based cultural differences in the workplace.)

Also, and what was most upsetting to me, was how the men were blatantly sexually suggestive in almost every instance of encounter-- be it in a professional setting (at school), a formal function (a funeral), or in passing (being lewd while passing in the street).  However, because of my age (the middle-age distinction), I did not suffer these indecencies  as frequently as my younger American PC colleagues were experiencing. (People in my community reach an age of respect when older;  although I earned much more respect than my younger PC colleagues, I was not free from being harassed.)  I found dealing with this inappropriateness on a daily basis insufferable and exhausting and I couldn’t imagine what my younger colleagues were experiencing.  Peace Corps warns us of “unwanted attention.”  Volunteers might be better prepared if it were called what it is: ongoing sexual harassment.  People in my country and in my culture-- in America-- go to jail for behaving in such ways.

Another way that helped me feel unwanted was my American-ness.  There was very strong anti-American political sentiment in my community.  I often felt and was told that my presence within my community represented the arrogance of all Americans: who are we to think we can help others? (This is a political sentiment I somewhat agree with.)

And lastly, because of the recent history of brutal racial tensions within the Republic of South Africa, the racial tensions in my community remain very high.  Just the sight of me caused many to assume that I was Afrikaner (white South African).  I strongly sensed from my black South African community that Afrikaners were unwelcome and the few Afrikaners I worked with at the college told me they felt unwelcome (and unsafe) living and working in my community.  White people, quite simply, were hated in my community.

So why didn’t I leave and come home?  To serve in Peace Corps is voluntary and I could have ended my service at any time.  Why didn’t I leave?  I didn’t leave because it was important to me to keep trying.  It is a bit of an exercise to join Peace Corps and involves major life-changing decisions like leaving a job and a family behind.  I did not take my invitation to Peace Corps lightly and it was important for me—and an honor for me—to serve.

In the end and when my service was nearly complete, I did decide to leave early and come home.   A host-country national, who also served as one of my South African supervisors, said something to me that was not very nice.  What he said to me was so not very nice that it would be considered a death threat in my country.

Coming on the end of two years of trying to respond to my community with love and kindness, this last encounter with a man who rightly should have been a supporter and protector convinced me it was time to leave South Africa.  I would never  be what I wanted to be in my community and to my people: Karen Kaye.  I would always be a symbol of something my community disdained and despised.

So why am I saying all of this?  I’m offering advice for any incoming Peace Corps volunteer coming to serve the Republic of South Africa: if your gut tells you something is wrong at anytime in your service, then something is wrong.  Do not hesitate to discuss your concerns with your Peace Corps supervisor.

I voiced concerns to my Peace Corps supervisor early on and she immediately suggested I change my site.  In hindsight, always 20/20, I should have. Also,  I have since learned that I lived in a “location.”  Locations are like small towns (versus the smaller, quieter villages) and are often much more politically active.  Looking back, I think I would have been much happier living and working in a smaller, quieter village.

Also, I tend to check my reality by running things by other people.  In this case, it was, “Hey, it really sucks at my site.  Does it suck at your site?”  If it does suck at your site, well, then, perhaps something needs to change.  If it doesn’t suck at your site, well, then, something is wrong with me and I need to change.”  None of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers admitted experiencing difficulties.  (Although toward the end of our service, fellow volunteers DID begin to come clean and going public about experiencing difficulties.)

I’m 48 and most in my group were 30 and under, but there were 10 or so older than 55.  When I tried to compare my realities with the 55s and older, they would look at me like I had horns growing out of my head:  Why NO, they certainly didn’t experience anything like what I was experiencing at my site!  I would later realize that of course they didn’t: the older volunteers had reached the age of respect and were almost revered (but certainly respected) in their villages and schools and did not suffer with any of the “harassments” I and other younger volunteers did.

And here again, to incoming volunteers: don’t hesitate to voice your concerns if you have them:   Peace Corps does everything in its power to develop safe and appropriate sites for its volunteers; however, Peace Corps needs input from the volunteers at their sites to ensure the volunteer’s safety and satisfaction.   This was my biggest mistake: I was hesitant to voice my most alarming concerns.

Knowing what I know today, would I serve Peace Corps in the Republic of South Africa?  No, I would  not.  I feel that racial tensions are still too high in the rural areas of the country and I feel it too risky for Americans to be living and working in South Africa. 

Do I regret serving Peace Corps in the Republic of South Africa?  No I do not.  I believe for the first time in my life, I am a true patriot for my country, the United States of America. I was indifferent to and critical of my country before I left.  Now,  I love my country very much and feel remarkably lucky and blessed that, simply by a chance of birth, I live in the great nation of the USA.  I am lucky to live in a nation that is governed by democracy and that we as citizens have rights and a voice to change things.  I feel grateful to return to my home of safe streets, safe public transportation, safe drinking water, good hospitals and emergency response agencies, good schools, and healthy and abundant food.

I know there is violent crime, poverty and many, many difficulties for many, many people in America.  However, my life in America feels a billion times safer than what I experienced in South Africa.

But lastly, and I feel compelled to voice this emphatically as a parent to any parent with children headed toward the Republic of South Africa: I wouldn’t want my 20-something-year-old daughter serving in the Republic of South Africa.  I wouldn’t want my 20-something-year-old son serving either.

In closing,

PS.  That’s it!  I’m shutting her down!  I appreciate my readers and their ongoing encouragements.  Thank you for your support.  Maintaining my blog and sharing my experiences of my Peace Corps service has been one of the highlights of my two years in Africa.

AND, although my Peace Corps South African blog journey is ending, I will continue blogging and if you’re interested in film, you can hear me rant at