Tuesday, October 12, 2010

10/2-10/6: So I have spent the better part of ten months explaining the fact that even though my skin is white in color, I only receive a small stipend and am in effect a volunteer. All progress on this tidbit of cultural exchange was lost after I took a member of my organization to a Peace Corps training this week. Since PEPFAR has far more money than they know what to do with, PC decided to hold our training at a hotel and conference center akin to that of the Four Seasons. Not only were amenities such as a pool, sauna, beach volleyball and kayaking down the adjacent river some of the many that were offered, they also provided three palatial feasts a day that involved multiple rooms and presented some of the best food I’ve ever had. And if the slightest inkling of hunger happened to creep up on you between the banquets, delicate works of art covered in sugar and fresh fruit were displayed with morning and afternoon tea. Although this decadence was a welcome reprieve from my diet of rice and boiled chicken and my bucket baths where after much internal coercion I jump in shaking like a leaf, I can’t help but think how contrary to the goals of Peace Corps such a lavish training is. It’s also upsetting to realize the likelihood my counterpart believes in my hypocrisy. After insisting for almost a year that I don’t have piles of money I can just FedEx here to solve the world’s problems, rather I have something much better to give, my skills!, I’m now afraid all that work has been lost. What message does it send to rural villagers travelling halfway across the country to see such in-your-face wealth and to know they will soon be back working for $1-$2 a day? Perhaps it’s an opportunity they might never again experience, something they will always treasure, rather than something to be resented. I hope it’s the former.

Regardless of the necessity of such extravagant amenities, the actual training was absolutely wonderful and I would honestly do it again next week if I could. An American staff member of Peace Corps Tanzania came to educate about half of my training class on a new small-scale farming technique proven to increase your yields as much as tenfold.

Nobody likes a handout. Men feel a certain pride in caring for their families, going back to the days of the hunter/gathers. If this role is taken away from them by means of government grants which instead of providing support based on income status, gives money for the amount of children you have. So in a rural village that has a 90% unemployment rate the only way of income is through childbirth. I have never seen a clearer example of a government rewarding bad behavior. So the men who were once occupied all day in the work force now have plenty of time to make bad choices that include but aren’t limited to drinking obscene amounts of alcohol and committing gender-based crime.

I believe in bringing back the honor of the breadwinner; empowering the people of my community to take control of their own lives. I think part of the answer lies in improving their small-scale farming. Though this new technique of double digging for better root growth, re-routing water for drought and flood prevention and crop formation isn’t a miracle cure, it is, though, a start in food security. And with 70% of families in South Africa being food insecure throughout the year, these are skills I could teach that could literally change people’s lives. One of my co-workers told me of a community garden that was started by elderly women in the area. I think that’s the perfect place to start.

10/11: Today I found out that my go go is no longer interested in housing me during a staff meeting in Zulu. This topic was brought up as an issue needing to be addressed as if I was not in the room. As if I hadn’t spent every day of the past eight months with people I considered my second family. The problem was seemingly resolved after a two minute discussion which ended in all three of the Peace Corps housing rules being broken: PCVs cannot stay in the same house as the family, in a township and/or with a co-worker. When this was mentioned, several members of the organization walked out on the meeting in disgust at my demands.

Even though I was well aware of the various issues my go go had with me staying on her compound, mainly that I wasn’t paying rent and that I was staying in the hut where she typically performed her ceremonies, I never actually thought I’d have to move. I’m so heartbroken. I know in my heart of hearts that I couldn’t have possibly given her or Zindle more of my time or energy and I also know that that’s not what she was looking for. I thought our bond was stronger than the lust for money and her intentions purer but after a lifetime of poverty the draw of wealth is infectious. In the end, her disappointment in my lack of delivery was palpable and I can’t help but think I’ve failed her.

In my most busy month to date, I now have to add ‘convince new host family to house me for free for a year and a half’ to my list of things to do. Wish me luck.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry that you've gone through this Alena. I have had to deal with the idea that I am rich every day. I even got someone upset with me because I told them a "lie" when I said I only make about R2,300 a month. They insisted I must be making more and don't want to give it to others.

    PC is a weird thing in that we aren't really poor, but yet we are. And we go from a tiny training college to lavish places with pools and other things, while telling people we are living simple lives. No wonder they didn't believe you?

    Still the issues here are bigger then 3 star hotels and fancy buffets. The real issue, as you have said, is the absolute dependency that makes people slaves to the gov, which is clearly what they want.