Be it how it will, do right now.

Turning the Page

“Thanks for stopping, kashisa kakhulu namuhla,” I say as we hoist ourselves up the 6-foot ladder into the cab of the 18-wheeler.  “Uyaphi?”

“To Richard’s Bay today, but I go back this afternoon,” the Zimbabwean driver replies in broken English.  “You speak isizulu?!”

“Nuh-uh.  Siyafundza SiSwati, kodvwa siyakhuluma isizulu gcane.  We’re American volunteers on holiday.  Can you drop us in Mtubatuba?”

“Kulungile.  It’s on the way.”

We’re sputtering along at maybe 60km/h – painfully slow – other trucks are passing us by.  Kristy keeps checking her watch; we’ve got dinner plans at 6pm in St. Lucia.  Sensing our anxiety, the kindly driver informs us his truck is tracked by satellite – probably because he’s hauling chrome – and so he can’t speed.

His company is fun and I dig the reggae we’re jamming to, but really it’s the air-conditioning I don’t want to give up.  It’s a welcome stranger on our journey through KZN and I’m not ready just yet to abandon it.  I do the math in my head: if we continue our average speed, we’ll make it with about an hour to spare.  Relieved, I tell Kristy and watch the smile spread across her face.

We ease into our spring-cushioned seats and I space out on the acacia trees, rolling hills, and sun-spotted African countryside idling by.  Two hours later, we make Mtubatuba.  Another after that, we’re in St. Lucia, showered, and booking it to a phenomenal dinner courtesy of the visiting parents of a fellow PCV.

That was how I began a 20-day, multi-country, backpacking vacation for the holidays.

But, back up, I’m getting ahead of myself.

December was a mess.  I spent the first two weeks off-site for more PC training (which is an unfortunate story unto itself) and the first half of the third puking my guts out.  Immediately thereafter, I left for vacation.  All of this is to say, my sincerest apologies if you have recently received a long-overdue reply to an email or message.  While I am anything but regular in my correspondence, this time the dog really did eat my homework.

So, for the non-Peace Corps-censored, all-guts-no-glory, salacious account of my international dance party holiday adventure, please send solicitations to  Otherwise, know that it was tons of fun, but that I missed you greatly.

In fact, while I have taken great pains to maintain some sense of professional decorum in these pages, I do want to break from that for a moment here simply to acknowledge how much I missed you.  Elephantine amounts.  Gargantuan lots.  Titanic tons of total forlornness.  It was interesting: Coke remained ubiquitous, saccharine covers of Christmas carols polluted grocery store speakers, retailers advertised holiday specials for things nobody needed or wanted, and the general commercialization of the holiday season continued unabated south of the equator.

Yet – it didn’t feel like Christmas.  As a professed Christmas Geek, I’ve been trying to wrap my custom-crafted Santa Hat around this for the last few weeks.  What I’ve settled on – and, get ready, cause I’m cranking the Awww factor on this one – is that it really does come down to being with family.  We all know this; we tacitly acknowledge it in a million different ways each holiday season (and, hopefully, some other times throughout the year, too).  To experience that lesson firsthand, though, was quite another thing.  So, my dear friends, my wonderful family: I love you, I miss you more than these humble words could ever convey, and I have warm bear hugs queued up for each of you next time our paths cross.

And now it’s a new year!  In South Africa, it’s also the start of a new school year.  Most of my fellow PCVs are preparing to ease into classrooms come Wednesday as the start of their teaching volunteer work gets underway.  Myself and a few other volunteers, either because their counterparts requested it or (like me) they elected to, are not.  Instead, I’m going to spend 2011 developing secondary projects for my schools and community and improving my SiSwati through lessons with the same language tutor I had during PST.  I also plan on doing occasional substitute teaching as well as spearheading the computer literacy classes at my schools.  So while I will be teaching to some degree, I won’t have my own English classes like I had initially planned.  My hope is to take on full-time teaching in 2012.

Reaching that decision was exceedingly difficult and, for quite some time, felt like an abdication of my responsibilities.  After consulting with other education volunteers and my SAfrican counterparts, though, I think it was the right move.  From a PC point of view, teaching is not a sustainable aid project nor does it have much of an effect on anyone besides the 150 or so students in my classes.  Moreover, my ability to communicate complex messages in SiSwati is virtually non-existent right now; by 2012, I hope to be conversant enough that I can speak with students in their mother tongue if they don’t understand something.  Finally, larger secondary projects like HIV/Aids Education camps, library building and management, and school remodeling will take time and probably will come with their share of stumbles and pitfalls along the way.  I want to begin those processes now to allow myself more time to be successful.  And those projects benefit a much larger percentage of the community while also lasting long after I COS (close-of-service).  To me, this makes more sense, especially as it caters to my particular skill set.

If you were considering sending teaching aids, supplies, or items for the students, by all means please continue to do so.  As I mentioned, I anticipate lots of substitute teaching (SAfrican teachers often do not show up for work or leave unexpectedly), some computer literacy work, and I hope to develop mentoring groups between the secondary- and primary-level students in Steenbok.  So, materials will still be very much appreciated.

One last thing, before I silence Highway 61 Revisited and let the rain carry me away.  Some of you may be aware that I’ve been running a lot lately.  The day before I got violently ill in December, I ran a personal best of 9k in 50 minutes (I remain adamant there was no connection).  So, with a lump in my throat, it gives me little to no pleasure to announce that I will attempt the Longtom Half Marathon this coming March 27th.

There’s a four-hour cutoff, so at least I know the pain won’t go on forever.  In all seriousness, I’m really excited to join the ranks of PCVs across SA that have been running this for several years now as it benefits a fantastically good cause: The Kgwale le Mollo Foundation.

The KLM Foundation is a non-profit founded by two SA-11 volunteers in 2004, Bowen Hsu and Allison Howard, in an effort to make a lasting, sustainable contribution to a better future for South Africa’s kids – long after the end of Peace Corps service. With support, input and encouragement from their fellow PCVs, Bowen and Allison founded KLM in partnership with Uplands College – a private secondary school just outside Nelsruit. KLM provides a 5-year bursary and leadership development program to talented and motivated kids from under-resourced rural areas. To date, there are 8 KLM scholars enrolled at Uplands college – and with your help this year we hope to make it more!

I’ll have more information on the foundation, race, and ways you can contribute in the coming weeks.  For now, as with all good political assassination, I wanted to make it public and seal my fate.  And, of course, pictures from vacation will be leaked soon enough.

Happy 2011, friends and family.  Here’s to one more successful swing ‘round the sun.


One response

  1. The Other Jesse

    I’m hoping this is the same Matt I enjoyed NYE with in Durban. Sorry to hear about the sickness and the sudden change of plans. It’s not uncommon though and I know people who have gone from doing one thing to having their entire programming changed to something different in a matter of weeks, it can happen to anyone.

    We are lucky in the CHOP program that even if our Zulu, Siswati, Ndebele, or other languages are not fully up to snuff, we can still communicate. I can’t really convey complex ideas in Zulu unless I write them out, so I can understand how hard that would be in Siswati!

    January 10, 2011 at 5:23 PM

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