Back in the village. Life is simple again, quiet and calm. After a wild whirlwind December, it’s been nice to slip back into my routine. It’s so flipping hot. I decided the only way to deal with it is to resign myself to the heat, embrace it, pretend like I’m in a sauna at a high class resort on some beautiful African island…
Where to begin? I started my adventure within this bigger adventure in
Pretoria where the government (The HIV/AIDS fund PEPFAR, aka “President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief”) was kind enough to put us up in an awesome hotel for ten days. PEPFAR was the best (only good) thing to come out of the Bush administration, thanks George W! We were there for Peace Corps In-Service Training (IST), which included sessions on all aspects of HIV/AIDS education, grant writing and proposals, and project development skills. The HIV/AIDS sessions were the most interesting to me. I learned a lot of new things and reinforced key information that I already knew from my HIV training with the Alachua County Health Department back home. An extremely fascinating South African named David Patient led the sessions. He is one of the longest living people with HIV, diagnosed in 1983. He was hilarious, crude, and had pictures with Bono and Brad Pitt as his screensaver, nbd. He led us in some intense yoga sessions every morning and had just climbed US Mount Kilimanjaro a few days before meeting with us- the man is as healthy as an ox.
Living in my village has given me a pretty pessimistic view of HIV. For the most part, it seems relatively hopeless. It is an exceedingly complicated topic tied up with notions of gender roles, of race, of poverty, of politics. Talking about it is taboo. People die of HIV all the time but instead of identifying the real cause of death, everyone will say the person died of tuberculosis, or pneumonia, or cancer. These are all diseases easily contracted once a person has full blown AIDS and their immune system is severely weakened. People don’t want to know their status because that would involve going to the clinic to get tested and the fear of a neighbor seeing them and the news spreading like wildfire is too great a deterrent. Asking a man to use a condom can cause serious problems for a woman in African society. Parents don’t want their kids taught about sex in schools (cough
problem too cough) but of course many children start having sex at a very young age whether or not they are taught about safe sex. In the village there isn’t much to do for entertainment, trust me. US
Listening to Patient speak gave me a brighter outlook on what can be done in SA and made me realize how much global progress against the disease has been made. Patient’s central theme was: dying from HIV is a waste. The South African government provides ARVs (the medicine used to fight HIV) for free to any citizen with HIV. All you need to do is get tested, take your medicine, adhere to a certain (but not impossible) diet, and you can live a long and healthy life. Unfortunately, getting people to get tested and take their medication will remain complicated for a while, but at least options exist for people who want to practice safe sexual health. Patient offered us a lot of ideas and tools that we could possibly implement in our schools and communities. Most importantly, he advocated meeting people where they’re at and tailoring presentations about HIV to your audience to be as effective as possible. Overall, the training was very helpful, Peace Corps outdid itself. Every afternoon we were free to hang out, play sand volleyball, use wireless internet, watch movies, sit by the lake, go to the gym, the sauna, the hot tub, the pool, eat, drank…and to DANCE, with SA24 theres always a lot of dancing.
From there I was expecting to bum around some friends’ villages in the area for a week or so, but instead ended up taking part in an epic road trip to
. At a hostel one night we met these two Dutch guys who offered us a ride to the game reserve; they were hoping to offset the cost of their rental car and gas. They were nice, normal guys spending a semester abroad at the Kruger National Park and it took me no time to make up my mind. Promise it wasn’t as sketchy as it might sound. We rented a second car cause so many of us wanted to go and ended up being nine people in total. They proposed the idea around 9 PM and we were gone by 9 AM the next morning. The drive was beautiful. As much as I like the Cape, it doesn’t hold a candle to that area of the country ( University of Pretoria and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces) with its lush green vegetation and mountains. Kruger is one of the most famous and widely visited game parks in the whole of Mpumalanga Africa and driving through it showed me whyyy, it was absolutely incredible. It was the most authentic safari I’ve ever been on cause we were our own guides following the map and trails, never knowing what animal would appear around any given corner. I SAW TWO LIONS MATE! Nala wasn’t having it and tried to get Simba off her so Simba threw his head back and roared while Nala flung herself into the grass to take a nap- just like real life haha. Definitely the highlight. Elephants, giraffes, monkeys, hyenas, crocodiles, rhinos, buffalo, zebras were all nice enough to make an appearance. It was so unreal, beautiful and a BLAST. We also went zipling which was super fun, as if I wasn’t already pumped enough on adrenaline.
From there we caught a bus to
Durban, a city in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province on the Indian Ocean coast. is one of SA’s most progressive cities, evidenced by the fact that it had just hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference a couple weeks before we got there. Our hostel was a short walk to the beach and that’s where I spent most of my time. Twenty five of us were there, in three rooms with lots of bunk beds. It was not the nicest of places, I shared my bed with some bed bugs, cockroaches visited me often in the night, and everything was damp cause of the proximity to the ocean, but it brought us even closer. My hygienic standards have considerably lowered themselves anyway. I was still a sleep talking machine though, cursing bugs and random people in my sleep. Anyone that has slept in a room with me knows I’m the most entertaining when I’m asleep. Durban
It was a great time, lots of sun and surfing and relaxing and checking out the city. Christmas didn’t feel like Christmas at all until I skyped with my family as they opened presents and we virtually shared Christmas morning together. My mom even had presents wrapped for me in a stocking which they took turns unwrapping for me. It was wonderful. Christmas was harder than I expected it to be but talking to them took away most of my homesickness, it was the next best thing to actually being there. New Years was really special too, we danced the night away at a bar on FLORIDA street (thought that was fitting) and ended the night/morning swimming in the ocean (we may or may not have had clothes on) as the sky turned pink and the sun rose over the water. Something tells me most of the nights of 2012 won’t be that exciting, it set the bar pretty high.
The next night caused a lot of excitement but not for the same reasons. Thinking about writing about this has been weighing on my mind but I’m gonna give it a shot. Walking back from dinner, some guy tried to rob me on the street with a knife. It all happened very quickly and aside from feeling a little emotionally unstable at the time, I’m totally fine. Luckily, he didn’t touch me with the knife and he didn’t get any of my stuff. About fifteen of us had gone to dinner but on the walk back we were walking at difference paces and me and two friends, Melissa and Suzannah, were about 100 yards behind the group. The general idea is that a man approached me from behind, grabbed my wrists with one hand and tried to wrestle my phone out of my hands, while his other hand had the knife at my stomach. In the confusion, I didn’t see the knife and because there was a crowd of people standing by us, my instinct was to fight his grip and hold onto my phone, assuming that if I struggled long enough someone on the street would intervene. No one even flinched or looked mildly concerned even after Suzannah yelled for help- looking back on what happened that has been one of the most difficult things to process. If there is a next time, I will give an attacker whatever he wants (besides me of course), nothing I own is worth my safety. After a very long couple of seconds of struggling I managed to twist out of his grip and the three of us ran like hell to the hostel. He tried to follow us but we lost him. Major thanks to my friends Zacc and Chris for their self-defense lessons before I left home, I know it helped.
It shook me up for sure but I just feel lucky that things turned out the way they did. I received awesome support from the other volunteers and especially from my family. I was nervous to tell my parents, the thought of causing them anxiety and pain when I’m not coming home for good anytime soon was hard, but I knew then was the time to tell them when we could skype and they could see my face and know I was okay. Their response was exactly what I needed and while I know they were/are scared, they managed to be there for me in such a good way. My dad deals with trauma every day at work and offered good advice on how to work through what I was feeling at the time and what I can expect to feel in the near future. I’ve also known about the basics of trauma work my whole life from long dinner table conversations and the osmosis that occurs naturally when you’re the daughter of a psychologist. In a nutshell I just need to talk about it when I feel like I need to so I don’t repress my feelings and let it affect me in more negative ways than it needs to, hence the writing of it down in a public space.
I still get a rush of adrenaline and a mental flash of what could happen whenever someone walks too closely to me on a street and I feel an even stronger aversion to attention from men than I’ve felt since I got here, but I know it’s gonna take some time to get over. It’s made me think even more about South African poverty, about senseless acts of violence, about the racial and monetary divides in this country and why they facilitate the most intense kind of crime, and about my own vulnerability. It shook me up but it in no way shook my resolve to be here, I’m committed. I’m going to be as SAFE as I possibly can, I’m so determined to come home safe and sound at the end of these two years it's not even funny. My goal is to deal with it as healthily as possible so I can continue to get the most out of this experience.
I had a great time in
and in December in general and the incident didn’t change that at all. I like being Lerato Molefi, but it was just what I needed to be JULIE for the last month, to speak English as fast as I wanted, to not be stared at, to bounce ideas and frustrations off people who understood all too well, to stay out late and sleep in, to laugh continually, to hug and be hugged. The break came at the right moment. It rejuvenated me and gave me back some perspective that I inevitably lose from time to time. It got me pumped to commit myself even more to my work at school and to the relationships in my community. Durban
With that in mind, I’m still gonna take things one day at a time. I need to continue to take care of myself mind body and soul because I’ve realized I’m no use to anyone if I’m not in a good place myself. I’m going to try to make the most out of what I’ve got. It’s a process--that has become my mantra, I think that phrase over and over again. Showing up is half the battle! So these next couple months I’m gonna show up and make myself as useful as possible.
School started last week. I’m a REAL teacher. say what?? so far so good. More on that later, for now Ive got some sweating to do and some homework to grade.
sending you all best wishes for a safe, healthy, fantastic and love filled 2012!!