“But we little know until tried how much of the uncontrollable there is in us, urging across glaciers and torrents, and up dangerous heights, let the judgment forbid as it may.” — John Muir
I spent the better part of the last two weeks visiting friends and seeing Pretoria for the first time as part of a training for the PCSA mentoring committee I serve on. Hilarity – and stories – ensued, which I will do my best to relate shortly.
First, however, a final plea:
In SiSwati, kuzama translates as “to try.” Used without the prefix ku-, it becomes a command: try! Trying, it’s the crux of my rationale for applying to the Peace Corps in the first place, a cornerstone of my usual spiel with local students and children here, and a source of personal strength on especially tough days. It’s a fairly common adage, popping up in myriad forms (Win or lose, it’s how you play the game; Try, try, and try again; If at first you don’t succeed…) in various corners of the American zeitgeist.
It bears a special significance for me as I’ve always felt a bit like an underachiever; someone whose heart was in the right place, but just couldn’t quite cut it. My actions were dictated by my character, by my beliefs, but in practice the good guy rarely takes the gold. So, I found motivation by reminding myself, drilling it in, that it was okay if I never came in first – I still had character. I still had tried.
In two weeks, I’m going to run the first half-marathon of my life. It’s a half, not a full, and even still I harbor no illusions of coming in first. This time, though, my conception of winning is clearer; this time, I feel as though I’m winning simply by undertaking the run. Here’s why:
Each year, the KLM Foundation uses the Longtom Marathon as their primary fundraiser for a unique scholarship, one that came out of two PCVs’ service several years ago. The scholarship provides the opportunity to one incredibly gifted, incredibly poor, rural South African student to attend the best high school in all of Mpumalanga, for free, for all four years. All possible costs are covered – food, housing, tuition, books, transport, extra-curriculars, everything – and a specific facet of the scholarship requires the student to undertake a project to better his or her own community during their third year.
It’s a fantastic scholarship and, by fundraising with friends, family and colleagues and then running the marathon, I feel like I’m realizing a tangible, substantive success here. As you can see, it’s not my win to own, either; it’s shared. It’s made possible only by your generosity, humanity, and selflessness. As of now, I am actually leading all of PCSA in fundraising. Current tally: US $610. If you haven’t donated yet and were thinking about it, now’s the time: we’re two weeks out. Here’s how:
Donations can be done through a secure web form on the Foundation’s website (when you click the Donations photo at the top-right of the page, your browser will likely ask you if you want to see the popup, this happens because the KLM site sends you to a site to securely handle any financial data). Make sure to put my name [Matt Kertman] in the box where it asks for the Longtom runner you want to sponsor. The online donation is preferable, but if you need to mail in a check, please make it payable to “Kgwale Le Mollo (US)” and send it to:
KLM Foundation (US)
c/o Bowen Hsu
461 So. Bonita Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91107
Please make sure to include a note that your donation is on my behalf. And it’s all tax-deductible. At this stage in the game, I would encourage you to utilize the online method in order to guarantee your donation is received in time.
While I was in Pretoria, I got my knee checked out; I picked up some meds, got a knee brace, and a clean bill of health. I’m ready to do this. Here’s another way to look at it, though: If I flew home tomorrow, I’m betting most of you would take me out for a beer. And since I’m a beer snob, I wouldn’t buy a Bud but rather a lovely, west coast, craft brewery IPA. Average cost: ten bucks. I’m not, unfortunately, coming back tomorrow but, if you throw that beer money to the KLM Foundation, I will buy YOU a round when I do get back next year. Deal? Deal.
So, my friends: zama. Please, help me kuzama.
Pretoria. God, where to start? The morning of my arrival, I found a pancake house and had eggs, bacon, toast, and a mango-filled, syrup-smothered pancake stack, with bottomless drip coffee. I blew my food per diem for the day in one meal and it was easily worth it.
I had real pizza with real mozzarella and loaded with fresh veggies. I ate Chinese dumplings, a Subway turkey sub, and a falafel wrap with real tahini. I had another pizza with legit salami, fresh figs, basil leaves, and parmesan.
One night, a fellow foodie and myself made pico de gallo with roasted corn, a pineapple salsa, homemade nachos with peppedews, and fajita-stuffed quesadillas for all of us staying at the backpackers.
Draught beer isn’t as big here as I was hoping but I found my haunts… and haunted them. Made friends with a traveling musician named Toby who dresses like Jimi Hendrix, talks like Bob Dylan, and channels Seu Jorge when he sings.
I went swimming. In a pool! I saw Black Swan in a real movie theater and lost my mind for an afternoon. I walked the endless corridors of a modern mall and marveled at our conspicuous consumption. Then I bought myself a hat.
I met the U.S. Ambassador to SA and sat in on a monthly town hall meeting that spent an uncomfortable amount of time on the imminent government shutdown. So, I guess, I set foot on American soil. I sent gifts home to family.
I got to know several fellow PCVs better and had a blast in the process. And I was trained to be a mentor for the incoming class of volunteers, traveled to their PST and met my mentees, and had a wonderful time getting to know them. Two will be stationed within an hour of me.
One night, I sat outside in the cool, autumnal air and listened to two guys jam out on acoustic guitars. Another night, I danced myself silly at an all-dorm collegiate party in Hatfield Square. One of my best friends broke his foot playing soccer against some Scandinavians staying at the hostel and we told him to stop battling Vikings.
I visited my host family in Waterval B from PST and felt awful as my 12-year-old sister cried when I left the next day. I brought medicine, clothing orders, mail, and gifts home for fellow PCVs in my neck of the woods, so far from Pretoria. I put back on the fifteen pounds I’d lost since arriving in South Africa.
Pretoria was an escape back to the lifestyle I am comfortable inhabiting. It was familiar and enticing, the way an old lover is. I knew what to expect even though I had never been to the city before. If I’m honest, leaving was difficult: after a few days at site, you acclimate to the environment; but once you’re away from site, coming back is like arriving for the first time all over again.
So, Pretoria was a delicious indulgence. Interacting with South Africans there, though, I realized the importance of the work PCVs are doing here. No one, not one South African to which I spoke, had any idea of the levels of poverty and disease present not 200km from Pretoria. Without an education, most rural South Africans truly have no hope of realizing a better quality of life, especially one absent the presence of HIV/AIDS.
It seems, always, that it comes back to education. One night, a guy staying at the hostel taught me a new game that, amongst other rules, involved toasting teachers that had an especially large impact on our lives. Mrs. B, Lowes, H – I hope your ears were burning. You are the reason I’m here, as Muir says above, “urging across glaciers and torrents, and up dangerous heights.”