Settling-in to the hood. Coming from the USA, most volunteers will tell you they didn’t come from any sort of privileged life. However, in Africa just being American means locals are pretty sure you’re rich; and by their living standards, you are. The first greetings from village kids usually involves panhandling. PC believes the best way to combat this ‘rich American’ notion is to make sure volunteers assume a local’s lifestyle. This means it may be the first time volunteers will live in housing that would make an American prison cell look posh. My housing was a free-standing round room, called a roundavel, with walls and floor made of gray cement. Electricity included (when working) but plumbing was not. I had a private Dutch-door entrance with a few gapping cracks around the frame. During winter months, pieces of cardboard box were strategically taped over the gaps to keep the cold from blowing through. During summer months fresh air was provided by three loosely framed windows; one blew out during a wild and wooly gale. It also sported a very expensive-looking, yet leaky, tile roof with a complex construction of exposed scaffolding holding it up. The procedure when a storm rolled through was to shuffle my bed around the room to try and avoid waking with a wet head. Lucky for me, for most of my two years of service, the country suffered a crushing drought. Every dark, waterless cloud has a silver lining, I suppose.
I Get Around. Here’s the part where reality really sets in; the part where even navigating your ride to work can present problems. PC training and real-world circumstance sometimes come in conflict. Example: The large, rumbling passenger bus is scheduled to arrive at your village stop at 9am daily to transport you to a larger town where your assignment awaits. This is unless it arrives 20 minutes early and you missed it. Or unless it’s ‘shopping day’ and the bus is already stuffed to the rafters with passengers; a toothpick couldn’t fit inside. Fear not. Enterprising villagers offer disappointed bus riders a bakki ride for the price of a bus ticket. These are old, light weight pick-up trucks fitted with shells over the back with wooden benches installed. The ride to town takes over 40 minutes on very rough, unmaintained mountain roads. The safety issues are obvious and PC training adamantly forbids a volunteer to ride in the back of a bakki. To take that ride PC insists one must sit in the front passenger seat, belt buckled, no exceptions. Can you even imagine a worse-case scenario? The new American stranger in town, trying to fit in, is instructed to insist on riding shotgun? It was a real hand-wringer. I traveled half way around the world and moved into a one-room cave all in an effort to live like the locals but was instructed to draw the line at a seat belt. As an oldster, I used my well-honed, situation assessment skills and weighed the options. Defying the rules and climbing in the back could result in my life ending in a spectacular crash in the next 40 minutes. I walked up to the bakki driver, smiled politely and addressed him directly with a friendly, “Soubona. Sonibonani.” All those Zulu lessons were not wasted. He smiled broadly. His face was kind, and he didn’t smell like alcohol. I imagined I was his first American passenger and doubted he’d want the responsibility of killing me on his hands. Since the head of PC security in South Africa may also follow my tale, I will leave where I sat to your imagination.
(Factoid: since 1962, around 300 PCVs have died on duty from car crashes, accidents, sickness, drowning, animal attacks and violent crime. Also a factoid: someone drowns nearly every day in America in a tub. Google it.)
A little trash talk. One thing I gotta mention about my beautiful village. This is the heart of Zulu country. The terrain is picturesque with lush green rolling hills. California realtors would surely describe each homestead as ‘breathtaking, with 360-degree, million-dollar views.’ Unfortunately, this is only true if you didn’t look down at your feet where every rocky, dirt road is littered with plastic trash. There is no organized waste management system. Once a week, on the walk to my bus stop, I’d bring a large bag and pick up as much trash as I could: candy and chip wrappers, bags, soda bottles, you name it. I felt a tiny bit of white guilt for what western civilization has unleased on this pristine piece of earth. Plastic. Carrying a bag of garbage on the bus drew more than the usual attention and did not make me the most popular rider; but it was the only sure-fire way to get it out. The primary school kids next-door started imitating my efforts, no doubt coordinated by the observant principal. Being noticed for every move you make is sometimes a good thing. On weekends, I’d renew my liter project, dumping it in a deep pit dug in my back yard that was set afire with all the other garbage once a month or so. Pretty sure it was contrary to common sense to breathe the toxic plastic smoke. That’s the only way the scourge gets addressed here. But I digress, I didn’t come as part of the Plastic Corps.
Up next: Justice and Women