“Welcome to Earth, young man. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of: goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — Kurt Vonnegut
Someone turned the tap off. Like a flipped switch, the rains have ceased their welcome visits here. One week, they came every day, cooling the late afternoons and bringing life to the corn, sweet potatoes, ground nuts (peanuts), and myriad animals and living things here. The next week, they were simply gone. Perhaps they’d moved on, like most things of any value here, or maybe they simply left because another village needed them more; it’s hard to say. But we know the sun is still here, bright and unyielding. He comes up later now, leaving the mornings cool and sweet, and sets earlier, trimming the day’s edges; but his presence is unending, like an ocean horizon.
Slowly but surely, things are changing. And that seems to be the dominant theme of life here – at least as far as I can see. Progress moves at a snail’s stride, hindered by direct and pointed opposition, sure, but also by passive, ambiguous indifference. Yet it does happen, gcane gcane (bit by bit), and a large part of integration is adjusting to this different pace. It sounds so simple when you consider it intellectually, abstractedly; to live it is quite another experience.
The great success of the last four weeks has been organizing a planning committee for a Leadership and HIV/AIDS Education camp for the boys in my village. Modeled off a successful camp devoted to empowering young women that is a staple of most PCVs’ service worldwide, my HCN counterparts have asked me to adapt the curriculum (so it is suited for young men) and hold a similar one this winter break. The committee has made no formal effort to plan, fundraise, or discuss the logistics of the camp. We have yet to decide on a camp name despite three meetings. However, we discussed the goals and objectives of the camp last week and, after a dismal attendance at the initial meeting (two of six teachers showed up), I have succeeded in getting a majority of the members of the committee to come to subsequent meetings. This, believe it or not, is a huge victory. Because I believe the camp must be community-owned, though; because I refuse to do all the logistical work; because I insist the other members assist me in writing the grant application – we have some work to do before July. But we will get there, gcane gcane, together.
Not only is this tenacity the nature of our work as volunteers, it has come to epitomize the character of our daily life. The first week I arrived at site, back in the latter part of September, I carried with me a lot of dirty laundry – this is no metaphor, I literally had bags full of soiled clothes. Before leaving for site, I had spent the last four days at the college where we held trainings, unable to do laundry, living out of my backpack. That first weekend at site, I needed to wash my entire wardrobe. After a morning spent soaking, scrubbing, double-rinsing, and finally wringing my clothes, I hung them on my family’s clothesline to dry in the African sun. That afternoon, as I removed them from the line, I noticed an odd, blood red pattern (the shape of an [=] sign) on many of my lighter clothes. The line, it turned out, attracts the dirt and dust abundant here, but is so dark itself that it hides the coloring; the clothespins had pinched that dust into my wet laundry. The next morning, I re-washed half my clothes. These days, I know to wipe the line thoroughly with a wet rag before hanging anything on it, but that day in September was phenomenally aggravating. It tested my perseverance, but it also helped me to understand that sometimes you must laugh at the moral life chooses to impart.
So much here is about patience, about learning lessons, and ultimately about acknowledging that the volunteer inevitably benefits more than the community. Once you recognize that truth, any opportunity to give back suddenly becomes imperative. One occasion to do so is the Longtom Marathon, for which PCVs in South Africa raise and donate funds to the KLM Foundation (www.klm-foundation.org). The money goes to a scholarship that sends one talented and smart but impoverished child to the best high school in Mpumalanga. It pays for room, board, books, supplies, activities, and travel for all four years. It covers every possible cost and even provides a tutor of sorts to assist with the challenges of adjusting. Part of the deal is that the student must spend time at home during their third year developing a project that empowers the community.
The foundation is an exceptional tool for benefiting rural villages and requires only that volunteers commit to spending one Sunday in March exercising – and, of course, many hours soliciting donations back home. Please take a look at their website and consider making a donation in my name: www.klm-foundation.org. If you feel so inclined, click the link labeled DONATE, it should open up a new window. Please remember to type my name in the box for the runner you wish to sponsor.
Yesterday, I put in 14km with another teacher in my village. Last week, I maxed out at 18km, but with a few adjustments in my form and stride I know I can make the 21.1km total come March 27th. That marathon is an opportunity to be a part of real, substantial change in South Africa and I cannot wait. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that, in essence, kindness is the one absolute rule of life. If you look at religious texts, scriptures on morality, national laws, the majority are designed to promulgate his belief. I run because I believe Vonnegut was right. I run because it’s the physical manifestation of all that I’m hoping to accomplish here. I run because, when friends and family ask me afterward if I found what I was looking for, out there, in the world, I will say yes.