Monday, December 6, 2010

11/14-11/19: This week I was in Durban, a beach town, for Life Skills Training. Since this isn’t my first rodeo, I came prepared with transport money for my counterpart who, as expected, hadn’t the foggiest idea these bush taxi things cost money to ride in. Once there, my counterpart immediately met up with her brother and sister who proceeded to sleep in her hotel room and eat from the buffet.

I quickly discovered that the translation was going to be sporadic at best. I immediately searched out my Peace Corps supervisor and explained that my counterpart can’t speak English. He said that I should have brought someone that spoke English. I responded by saying that I live in such a rural post that the only one that would understand a workshop in English would be my supervisor who has already received training by Peace Corps.

Unfortunately, I could hear the rumblings of an ‘I told you so’ already brewing in Nondweni. For the days leading up to the workshop, everyone seemed to be vying for the much coveted slot as my partner in crime in girls’ empowerment. Campaigns were staged; elections were held. It can’t be said that the vote cast too much light on the debacle because apparently everyone just voted for themselves…and literally everyone ran. All of this was in my absence. Of course the goal was not to build up their skills so they can strengthen the female leaders of tomorrow. No, it was made clear early on that this particular hotel was famous for its luxurious buffets. There were also rumors of a pool but that could not be confirmed nor denied. Women who aren’t literate in their home language made convincing arguments as to why this spot should be theirs. I got roped into the chaos in the final stage which involved carefully calculated smear campaigns and puppy-eyed guilt trips. I told them that as entertaining as this charade has been, I told Peace Corps that I was bringing Sindi two months ago, so that ship sailed weeks ago.

Back to Life Skills Training, I had high expectations coming off of permagarden training which had a contracted expert to facilitate. Sadly, LST seemed to be thrown together by two fellow PCVs, with none of the content being innovative or original. Luckily, I quickly readjusted my expectations (what’s a PCV if they’re not flexible, right?) and fully enjoyed myself after taking LST for what it was, a free vacation with friends I haven’t seen in a while.

Unfortunately, my vacation was marred by the knowledge that Madagascar, my destination after LST, was in a state of chaos after an attempted coup. Okay, chaos is very relative especially in the developing world and I thought since the State Department hadn’t given Madagascar a travel advisory let alone a travel warning, I should still be allowed to go. A week filled with emails and phone calls ensued with the issue reaching PC Headquarters in DC. The final decision was I could go, sure, but if I did I would be administratively separated or in other words dishonorably discharged.

So I took a few days to wallow in the fact that the plane ticket I bought six months before and the countdown I had going for weeks was not going to happen. Instead, I was slated to go to a weeklong training to plan the next training which included working on Thanksgiving Day.

Also of note, I made sure to add my highly-contagious ringworm to the guest list at my pity party. At this point, I’d had it for about a month with ‘satellites’ starting to pop up right and left. (As I write this three weeks later, there’s no change. I’m convinced I’ll have to be quarantined by US Border Patrol with the rabid dogs and spoiled fruit for an indefinite period of time for any number of diseases I have/will have).

11/20-11/28: This week, in place of a relaxing beach/jungle vacation, was devoted to planning the training for the in-coming group of PCVs. The language facilitators were also invited and the first three days were entirely focused on their roles and responsibilities. You might be surprised that that could possibly take 24 hours but I’ll give you one of many examples as to how that was made possible. A line was read about how the language facilitators cannot date trainees. A discussion ensued that lasted an hour and a half. Hypothetical scenarios were entertained. Role plays were re-enacted. Every possible angle was considered then questions started to repeat themselves. These answers to the same questions led to follow up questions which had also already been answered until I felt like I was in the twilight zone.

I was looking forward to Thursday and Friday when my presence was actually needed. So early on Thanksgiving morning we started training by brainstorming possible language topics to be covered at the next training. I raise my hand, “Is it possible to use previous trainings’ topics as a guide. If a topic slips our minds now, it would be difficult to squeeze in later.” This idea seemed to come as quite a surprise to the trainer. “Let’s just do it this way.” And that’s how we planned the entire eight and a half week training, by suggesting ideas for sessions off the tops of our heads. After some begging we were able to see the previous year’s schedule. There were about a dozen crucial lessons that were not on the already packed schedule. I was interested to discover that if you take out the time it takes to herd 40 people around, transport delays and guest speaker tardiness, training days are already pre-planned to run late. So if those issues are added in, what trainees assume are eight hour days, are pre-planned to be ten, but which end up being twelve. This formula is why Pre-Service Training frequently drives people to gouge their own eyes out.

The handful of PCVs involved in training were released early on this national holiday. A few of us were able to go to the Ambassador’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Packing for a vacation in the jungle, I didn’t necessarily come prepared with appropriate attire. Luckily, a fellow PCV brought two dresses so I was able to borrow her back up. The Ambassador’s compound is surrounded by twenty foot concrete walls which are topped with electric fencing. It’s a fortress. It’s so large that there are signs directing you to the various guest homes and activities inside.

We were, somewhat awkwardly, an hour early but the Ambassador graciously entertained us before the other guests arrived. He seemed very approachable and genuinely interested in our work. Next to arrive were nine Marines who guard the Embassy. I played croquet with some of them on one of the front lawns as bocce ball was going on on the lawn beside us. I’m very proud to announce that Kristen and I, as Team Peace Corps, placed in second amongst some very competitive, ruthless Marines who would knock your ball to Timbuktu without a second thought. Other Embassy staff and their families were there along with the Ambassador’s personal family and family friends from the States.

The President’s seal was on everything from the napkins to the glassware. The food was amazing. The best part came later when everyone offered their thanks. This was done casually, not one-by-one around the table, but everyone went none the less. It quickly became emotional as each toast was lifted in honor of someone in such an honest, heartfelt way. Maybe it was because everyone present was away from their country and family on a day in tribute to both but it was incredibly moving to see time and again people humbling themselves to share their thanks with a roomful of strangers.

11/29-11/6: When I got out of the taxi after being gone for two weeks I saw this little dot running full speed ahead from maybe a mile away. As the dot came closer I realized it had both arms spread wide. When it was closer still I recognized it to be Zindle and it looked like she was ready to pass out by the time she reached me. She was so happy she latched on to me, hanging from one of my many bags and wouldn’t let go. When I finally peeled her off me she insisted on dragging one of my bags through the dirt down the path 50 feet or so to our house.
I received the same Prodigal Son reaction at my organization the next day. Every woman sized me up, with debates ensuing on whether I got a bit bigger while I was away, they hoped I did.

Wednesday was World AIDS Day and I tried in vain to plan an event with the children on the feeding scheme. Instead, I was summoned to a community affair where the head table was flanked by banners advertising the South African Police Service’s dog service and negotiation techniques. It was a bit bizarre to say the least but the dancing was amazing. There was a group of about 30 teenage boys and a few girls who were dressed in animal skins and danced to a beat made by eight huge bass drums which were also made out of the skins. The boys lifted their arms as high as possible to hit the drums with such a unison force that it was some of the loudest music I’ve ever heard. Everyone was on their feet screaming in excitement. I could barely contain myself enough to take pictures, especially since I had a few children hanging on me to get a better look. Try to picture the loudest drums you’ve ever heard, paired with half naked dancers stomping to the beat and three hundred people egging them on. It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve experienced thus far.

The rest of the week involved minor episodes including me almost getting mauled by a dog and trying to referee the latest whodunit in respect to the most recent case of missing food. There were more attempts to try to teach this wonderful AIDS stigma lesson I worked hard on and a potential puppet show to follow, none of which got a very warm reception by the staff. I also learned that the kids get out of school a lot earlier than they’re suppose to so I decided to save my World AIDS Day activities for January when more of them will come. Another fun fact I discovered is that my organization closes down for an entire month (12/15-1/15) in honor of Christ’s birth. Lucky for my org, I’m going to be as busy as a bee, as Tshengie says, with a whole slew of enriching activities to plan and funding to pull from thin air.

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