Monday, October 15, 2007

Goodbye South Africa

It has finally come to an end. I've said my goodbyes. I've packed my things. I've left Tshamahansi.

My time as a Peace Corps Volunteer won't officially end until this Friday, 19 October 2007, but in effect I am done.

The past six weeks have been interesting. After the completion of the Tithembheni Tshamahansi HIV Testing Drive, I felt as if I'd done what I needed (and wanted) to do in South Africa. But I still had 6 more weeks left. That isn't nearly enough time to start any new projects or initiatives, and so I was in a bit of limbo for a while. At least I had graduate school applications to keep me busy.

A final update on the Testing Drive: after our final function, I went to Pretoria for a week and finished my final report. When I returned to Tshamahansi, I discovered that the Coca Cola banner we had been lent, which had been hanging from the fence of the Tshamahansi Clinic, was nowhere to be found. I inquired with the Nurses, and they knew nothing. I even asked the clinic security—surely they would have seen something? But they just shrugged and said they didn't know. It seems the banner was stolen and nobody, not even the security whose job it was to watch over the Clinic, took any responsibility. In response, I too just shrugged; there was nothing I could do and I didn't want to cause a scene.

The news hasn't all been bad though, with regards to the project. The Department of Health was so impressed by the results of the testing drives in Tshamahansi and Jakkalskuil (Erica's village) that it is planning on holding some more HIV-testing campaigns in different parts of the district, using ours as a model. I gave them some advice, but unfortunately I won't be around to help them with the new campaigns. It's better, though; they need to be able to do it on their own and I think they will be able to.

In addition, my committee has pledged to continue working with community projects and HIV awareness. Some of them have become active working with the Red Cross; 3 of them were invited to and went to a 3-day, all-expenses-paid, Red Cross camp / retreat. That's an amazing feat, and I am so proud of them. I gave them the spark and the motivation that they could do something, and they ran with it. Bernard, one of the attendees, mentioned to me that “Omar, it's all thanks to you man!”

They returned from the camp having pledged to use the Peace Corps Life Skills Manual, in addition to the material they received from the Red Cross, and train 25 of their peers in much the same way as I had trained them. I'm delighted to hear that my departure does not signal the end of efforts in Tshamahansi. I came to South Africa hoping to instill sustainable change in the schools; instead, I instilled sustainable change in the village. I couldn't be happier.

Starting on 6 September, my group of Peace Corps Volunteers—those of us who had arrived in country together on 18 August 2005—were allowed to COS (Close-of-service) and leave South Africa. That was the week that I was in Pretoria, so I was there to see most of my friends prepared to return home or travel Africa. While they were departing for other destinations, to move on to the next step in their lives, I instead returned to Tshamahansi. The rest of my group COS'd on 6 October, and I was supposed to as well, but I'd decided to stay in the village during the month of Ramadan, which began soon after I returned from Pretoria. Ramadan was easier this year than in the past, and I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Mokopane (my local town) with a Muslim family of Indians, the Bhikhoos, who were so welcoming and treated me like a member of the family. I was able to spend time going to the Mosque, breaking the fast with them, and doing Taraweeh prayers at night.

Every year a new group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrives in South Africa; two years ago, my group, SA 14, arrived. Last July SA 15 arrived, and this year SA 16 arrived. On 20 September, Peace Corps South Africa held a function in Pretoria to mark two occasions: the swearing-in of SA 16, and the 10th anniversary of Peace Corps South Africa. I went to Pretoria for two nights to attend. (at the function, the Ambassador mentioned my fellow volunteer Tom, who had thrown a pie in his face at the 4th of July party—we were all very amused)

The Peace Corps Regional Director, Henry McKoy, who is in charge of Peace Corps for all of Africa, was also in attendance. He was in South Africa for one week, and he requested to meet with a few volunteers. He had two days available for volunteer site visits, and Peace Corps was so impressed with the Testing Drives that Erica and I had done that they selected us to host him for a day; they scheduled him to spend one day with us, in Erica's village, discussing our projects. Director McKoy proved to be a very personable, open man, and the visit was a pleasure. After leaving South Africa, he spent a week in Lesotho and then continued to Ethiopia, where he opened the Peace Corps Ethiopia Program. (via CNN)

Eventually, on 13 October 2007, this past Saturday, exactly two years to the date of my swearing-in, I left Tshamahansi and Mokopane and went to Pretoria. Leaving the village itself was not very difficult, but there were definitely some people in the village that I am incredibly sad to be leaving behind. First is the committee I had worked with, for over a year, who had been so dedicated and worked so tirelessly, and who I saw as the truest testament to my Peace Corps Service.

Second, and more important, was the family that I became a part of. The Baloyi family has been my family since March 2006, and I will miss them terribly. They opened up their home to me. They treated me as an adult; they gave me just the perfect combination of support and independence. Some host families might give a volunteer enough support but not enough independence; others might give enough independence but not enough support. I was fortunate enough to receive just the right amount of both. Whenever I returned home from a weekend or week away, my host mother Esther would receive me with a smile and “Ha amukela!” (We welcome you) or “Welcome home!” And whenever I left, she would say, “Mi famba kahle” (Go well) or “Have a nice journey.” So when Esther walked me to the combie as I was leaving for the last time, and Esther said “famba kahle”, I realized that I wouldn’t get to hear “ha amukela” again, for a long time at least. It saddened me. My entire host family—my parents Ben and Esther Baloyi, my brothers James, Dennis, and Tumisho Baloyi, my sisters Susan Baloyi and Patience Ngobeni, and our housekeeper “Auntie Christine”—I will miss them all. Indeed, they are what I will miss most about Tshamahansi. (At the bottom of this post is a picture of Esther and Auntie Christine that I took a few weeks ago)

Now I am about to leave not only Tshamahansi, but the country of South Africa. For over two years this has been my home; as with any home, my feelings about it are conflicted. I simultaneously love it and will miss it, but I am also extremely frustrated by it and can not wait to leave. I feel these things at the same time. My thoughts about South Africa are so complex, and so conflicted, that I can't really express them. But I will say this:

There is so much potential here. I've mentioned before that the youth I've come across offer the best hope I've seen for this country. But, as I've also mentioned before, it's a fragile hope. What happened to the youth of 1976? It's what I've noticed over and over and over again during my two years here…the first inklings of power and things change.

Coming from a background of such poverty, people tasting some sort of power or authority for the first time wildly grasp at it. They indulge with their newfound money, having spent their lives in poverty and finally breaking free. But here is where the problems start. Caught between two worlds—traditional culture and society on one hand and “modern/Western” society on the other—people choose to embrace the worst aspects of both. They hold on to some archaic cultural practices and opinions, but disregard others. One of the first things to go is the wonderful African practice of “ubuntu.” Ubuntu means that we are all the same; I cannot succeed if we all do not succeed. It's a wonderful equalizer, where we are all supposed to look out for each other. In two years, I have very rarely seen ubuntu of any kind coming from people with authority—municipal workers, teachers, nurses, local officials, administrators. When ubuntu and the other positive aspects of traditional culture are lost, what takes their place are aspects of Western culture. But the aspects which are chosen—materialism, greed, selfishness, a constant desire for more—are harmful, especially when they are not coupled with the Western values of responsibility and accountability. What I've seen is the worst of two cultures come together, while the best of these cultures is lost.

In the large “Westernized” cities and in the rural “traditional” villages, things look more positive. I've found some of the nicest, most genuine people I've ever met in remote rural villages like Gonani and Jakkalskuil; in the cities there are plenty of hard-working, responsible people. It's in the in-between places—the small towns, the “locations”, places like Tshamahansi, or like Mokopane—that things don't look so great.

There's a reason that there's such a lack of service delivery in underdeveloped areas of the country, and that is because the people in power, the teachers and nurses and administrators, have yet to find a good balance between cultures. There are always exceptions, and I've met quite a few, but this is the pattern I've seen. And unfortunately, that lack of ubuntu, the lack of responsibility, has been seen more commonly in the very peaks of government recently. Thabo Mbeki has made some seriously dubious decisions this past year—firing Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, supporting Manto Tshabalala-Msimang in all of her malicious incompetence with regards to the HIV epidemic and more, trying to get warrants against Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi overturned and then firing Vusi Piloki when he refused to withdraw the warrants. Jacob Zuma could be under investigation again for corruption. The list goes on. Part of me worries that things are going to get worse before they get better, and the most cynical parts of my psyche expect South Africa to turn into Zimbabwe in a few years. I mean, Zimbabwe was also very successful for its first 10 years or so, and Mugabe used to be the darling of the Western community, an eloquent anti-apartheid speaker, a reconciler, a liberation hero. Will we see the same mismanagement in South Africa, the same deterioration? Is that why Mbeki is so silent on the Zimbabwe crisis?

In all honesty, though, I don't think it will get that bad. Rural schools are churning out undereducated, subservient kids, and they will continue to. But the same selfish teachers and administrators who don't care about rural children's education are sending their own children to private schools, and so these children will grow up with a real opportunity to be successful and make a change. Slowly but surely, there will be more previously disadvantaged children doing wonderful things with their lives.

After months of continuous work, last month I had some free time. I spent it reading, and had the opportunity to read two fantastic, very different South African books: Alan Paton's “Cry, The Beloved Country” and Nelson Mandela's autobiography, “Long Walk To Freedom.” Reading these books so late into my service gave me the background to truly understand them and to appreciate them. First, the opinions that I had formed over my two years in South Africa were eloquently stated in “Cry, The Beloved Country.”

"Because the white man has power, we too want power, he said. But when a black man gets power, when he gets money, he is a great man if he is not corrupted...Some of us think when we have power, we shall revenge ourselves on the white man who has had power, and because our desire is corrupt, we are corrupted, and the power has no heart in it. . . I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it."

Alan Paton was writing about apartheid at the time, but the sentiments echoed in his work are a mirror of my own sentiments; things, it seems, have not changed all that much. I'm also thinking of something I read in “Long Walk To Freedom” ….Nelson Mandela says,

"The policy of apartheid created a deep and lasting wound in my country and my people. All of us will spend many years, if not generations, recovering from that profound hurt...Perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character. My country is rich in the minerals and gems that lie beneath its soil, but I have always known that its greatest wealth is its people, finer and truer than the purest diamonds... The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning."

I've always believed that South Africans have enormous potential, and I have seen them rise up to the occasion when needed. This is especially true of those determined youth from my committee, for who I see great things. But, as Madiba says, South Africans are not yet free. They have freedom, but their psychological and cultural chains are still binding them. Only when teachers and nurses and administrators and local officials truly live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others will this country truly be free. Mandela thought it might take years or generations to recover from South Africa's horrors…I think generations hits closer to the mark.

Where will South Africa go from here? I can't say. In much the same way that I can't say where America will go from here. It could go in either direction—up, or down. After this weekend, I won't be here to witness South Africa's changes, but I will be watching, from afar, curious as to what happens next and truly, for the sake of the many wonderful South Africans who have enriched my life, hoping for the best.