A lot of significant marking points over the past few weeks, Mandela’s 90th birthday, my year anniversary in South Africa, my 36th birthday… Lots of moments to assess what’s going on around me and what I want to do with the remaining time I have here.
Mandela’s birthday came with lots of articles about the man and the current situation in South Africa. Has South Africa betrayed his vision? Is he really the man everyone thinks he is? And why is he so star-struck? Sometimes it’s a challenge when the legend lives to old age, instead of martyred like Biko, King, and Kennedy. He has more time to reveal his flaws. Yet, most African heroes who lived and went on to lead their countries ended up being corrupted, megalomaniacs, like Robert Mogabe in Zimbabwe, or Joseph Kenyatta in Kenya (among many, many others), and Mandela avoided that fate. He is truly a remarkable man. He fought against the oppression of apartheid, and when that was dismantled, he fought against the tyranny of AIDS, when others in the ANC were dismissing it as another tool of the whites, a myth to panic everyone and make money off of ARVs, or as a plot to kill all the blacks. He is one of the rare ones who has seen what needs to be done, and then gone on to do it.
I’ve realized how much I have romanticized many things in the past (those who have known me over the last 15 years can attest to that!), but the thing that stands out the most today is how I’ve romanticized oppression. All my heroes have been born in oppressive situations, and their ability to strive for love and hope and forgiveness in spite of everything that has happened to them has inspired me to go down the path I’ve chosen. Yet, living in South Africa has shown me the other side of oppression like nothing else. Most people living in poverty, cruelty, and injustice do not become heroes. They become like most everyone would in these situations, wounded, bitter, frightened and angry, surviving the best they can, trying to take what they feel is owed to them if they have the opportunity to do so.
When I was in Kenya and Tanzania, I could overlook much of the aftermath of colonialism and brutal governance, either because I was there for only a short amount of time, or because I was with people who were working hard to make things better. I chose to be with people who were a lot like me, at least philosophically. In Peace Corps, however, choices are a luxury that few of us have. I’ve seen friends cheated out of money by the organizations they were there to help, or, even more common, watching communities get cheated out of money by other South Africans who said they were there to “help.” Directors trading sex for food parcels, health workers not getting paid while leaders buy new cars or put additions on their houses. The corruption is overwhelming, not only the amount, but the pettiness of some of it. Health workers earn less than $100 month, yet that means a lot to them. If they don’t get it, their families might not get fed.
However, I also see, and am surrounded by, people who are making a difference, and who aren’t doing it just for themselves. My definition of hero has changed since I’ve been here. It’s the people who live their lives, and with the strength, energy and money left over, dedicate that to those around them. Oppression doesn’t make heroes. It just makes people more human. Parts that can stay hidden if you grow up in easier circumstances don’t stay hidden here. And at the same time, those parts aren’t really hidden in the US either, but we can avoid them easier. When I didn’t like where I was living, I moved, When I didn’t like my job, I found a new one. And even though I have plenty of issues about the lack of control that Peace Corps volunteers have (sorry, Gene!), I’m realizing that this is the way most people live their lives, no choices about where they will live, where they will go to school, or if they even have a job. And let me tell you, it’s no picnic.
So, what will I do with my final year here? How will I spend my 36th year on this planet? I guess I’ll continue doing what I’ve been doing and building on what I’ve learned. My major lesson is that people who are making a difference are everywhere and that it’s crucial for me to find them, to search out hope while walking hand-in-hand with reality. My organization isn’t perfect--the management style tends to vacillate between yelling at each other and laughing with (and at) each other--but they are definitely doing a lot of good here and I will do what I can to see them better off than when I first got here. Fortunately, they make that easy. They are a good group. We’re working on starting a poultry project to sell fresh eggs to the village, and I’m working on starting computer classes which should help people in their search for jobs. We’re also working on an entrepreneurial/job training program, and we’re also working on getting the existing bakery to become more profitable. By the time I leave, I think Makotse Women’s Club will have a strong financial foundation that they can continue to build on.
I also want to visit other strong organizations in the country. South Africa has a lot of them. They’re just not where Peace Corps volunteers are placed. I’ll keep learning what works and what doesn’t as far as development is concerned. I’ve seen a lot of different theories put into action, and then your basic good intentions meeting reality head-on (reality tends to win in these situations). My friends and I spend a lot of time discussing if outsiders can really make a difference, because there is so much misunderstanding, and so much development creates dependency, instead of empowerment. Not too different from social work, actually. But, I still believe there is a role outsiders can play here. It’s just that grand theories and good intentions are not enough. As much as I am not a cynic, a little cynicism and disillusionment can actually be a good thing here, if it means that you look for what works, not what you want to work.
So, stay tuned for my next installment. I’ll be giving another language lesson, and maybe even a contest! Should be fun and much more lite and fluffy than this here soul-searching, re-evaluating session has been. But, after all, that’s what anniversaries are for!
Till next time!