The highlight of my Peace Corps service arrived the 23rd of last month, when my counterpart and I took all 26 young men from Siyakhula Boys Club to Johannesburg on an educational field trip for the end of term break.
They raised roughly half the cost of transport themselves, the club paid for some of the remaining cost, and overly generous donations from a precious few friends and family in America provided the rest. Thank you!
So, what happened? Well…
I spent the better part of Friday night running through the next day and making final preparations. This included making 30 peanut butter and butter sandwiches that would ultimately serve as breakfast for the guys and two sets of 30 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that formed the main course for lunch. In case you wanted to know how long it takes to spread, cohere, and bag 90+ sandwiches, I can tell you: exactly two hours and forty-seven minutes. I’ll never touch peanut butter again.
We left Steenbok early Saturday morning, after some serious struggles locating all 26 boys along the lone tar road at 3:30am. En route, I had the unique honor of belting Adele’s “Someone Like You” along with fourteen teenage boys at the top of our lungs. We also elicited some pretty fantastic looks of disapproval from stuffy travelers at the petrol station where we stopped, at approximately 9am to use the toilets and garner refreshments, when we initiated an all-out dance party outside the taxi and blasted bass-heavy trance like it was going out of style.
Arriving at the Apartheid Museum just in time for our 10am tour, things turned serious rather quickly – and rightfully so. I had arranged a Zulu-speaking tour guide in advance, and he took us through the entire museum on a 2.5 hour guided tour. The museum is one of those places you could spend a day and still not feel satisfied that you had gotten the full experience. It was as I had hoped: shocked expressions at the graphic videos, curious questions about the ’76 student uprising, fascination with the Mandela exhibit (though it certainly did not hurt they could take photos of themselves next to the red Mercedes Benz that transported Nelson Mandela after departing Robbin Island for his first political speech as a free man). Even Sam, my counterpart, and the two taxi drivers, who had lived through Apartheid, were engrossed. At the end, as we left, I felt the distinct pleasure that comes from having your intuition (not to mention hopes and goals) affirmed.
Afterward, we drove to Mary Fitzgerald Square, named for a prominent and early woman union organizer, where the boys ate lunch and reflected on what they had just seen. We then began a 3-hour guided tour of the SciBono Discovery Centre in Newtown. Again, I had arranged a Zulu-speaking tour guide, and she was key in both holding the guys’ interest (a pretty young woman, the boys all clamored for individual photos with her at the end of the day) and explaining some of the more complex concepts of the exhibits. The center is an interactive educational facility that demonstrates scientific principles through fun, hands-on activities. There was a magic show that was subsequently explained through the principles of chemistry (stuff exploded, fire changed color, water turned into expanding foam), exhibits on wavelengths (special goggles refracted light to alter what you were looking at), energy, electricity (you could turn a crank and power a light bulb), momentum, and the body, and health-conscious exhibits like the one that showed all the different chemicals contained in cigarettes and how much money you could save (and what you could buy with that money over time) if you didn’t smoke. A popular exhibit used soccer to demonstrate the body’s sensory system by having an individual kick a soccer ball at targets as they lit up and beeped – and then scored them based upon their reaction time. The guys had a wonderful time, laughing and playing from one activity to the next.
Finally, it was time to go, and we drove a few short minutes to a nearby Roman’s Pizza. There, the Indian owner (who had been forcibly removed to a nearby “colored” township during Apartheid) gave us exceptional service (and an unplanned and incredibly generous discount), the boys were waited on, ordered their own individual pizzas and juice, discussed what we had learned at the science centre and talked about our favorite moments of the day, and generally enjoyed themselves. As I sat there listening to them share their thoughts and feelings, it was thrilling to see them all interact so maturely with each other in such an alien environment – more evidence in the already-won debate over whether some races possess “different capabilities” than others – and to bear witness to what I already knew in my heart: that each and every one of these young men has the potential to bust out of the cycle of poverty that attenuates village life.
From there, it was back into the taxis for the long ride back to Steenbok, where we dropped the learners, after more sing-alongs and multiple bathroom pitstops, with their waiting families around 01:00am. It was far and away the best day of my Peace Corps service, and special thanks must be given to Rebecca Fielding-Miller for her graceful assistance in wrangling 26 adolescent boys for almost 24 hours straight, and to my parents for their seemingly inexhaustible support of both myself and the club over the last two years. It was, without hyperbole, everything I had hoped for.
Since that refulgent day five weeks ago, the guys have filled out M&E questionnaires designed to test what knowledge and skills they’ve picked up from the club; signed and written over a dozen thank you letters to different community and international sponsors; finally received the artwork from our participation in an international art exchange (if you could have seen their reactions: “she painted this…in what country?!”); and last Thursday capped six months together with an “I Can’t” ceremony (in which they each privately write down one thing they “can’t” do on a piece of paper and then take turns burning their slip of paper over the flame from a candle) and a yearbook signing party at our final club meeting. Unlike high school, I was the most sought after signature. Afterward, in what might have been the most touching moment of the last two years, I was faced with a classroom of young men that just sat there quietly, for the first time ever, not wanting to leave.
In the time between now and then, I spent two weeks at a backpackers that borders Tsitsikamma National Park in the Western Cape as part of a work exchange program (where I learned, amongst other things, how to make both proper muesli and a fire with wet wood), working evenings in the kitchen and behind the bar and spending my days hiking and running through what can decidedly only be called God’s Country. I also visited another PCV near and dear to me in the Eastern Cape, losing a tug-of-war contest to some 12-year-olds and getting muddied up in the process. I rode illegally in the driver’s cabin of an especially large luxury bus liner, listening as the man whose attention I much preferred remain on the rainy road in front of us excitedly regaled me with tales of his time working pastoral farms in America’s heartland. And, a few days late but no matter, spent the better part of a weekend painting and installing new windows at one of my primary schools as part of Madiba Day – the South African unofficial holiday that commemorates his birthday.
Now as I stare down the shorter part of six weeks, the desperate gasp of my remaining stay here palpable, I am quietly grateful for the time I have had, and for the uncommon sodality I feel with a community impossibly estranged from the world – I must admit – I will inhabit for the rest of my life. Thank you, all, who made such an experience possible.
The late Christopher Hitchens, a hero of mine for his articulate writing and passionate dedication to the heterogeneous (because of its intrinsic human value), would try to go “at least once every year, to a country where things cannot be taken for granted and where there is either too much law and order or too little.” He did this for the sheer principle of the matter. Of the many lessons Peace Corps has taught me, one is that such integrity is painfully rare, and every instance must be championed and encouraged, and another is that that’s really not a terrible idea.
He also wrote, in his memoir Hitch-22: “How terrible it is that we have so many more desires than opportunities.” I want to thank, one more time and certainly not the last, everyone who helped to make the Jozi trip the success it was, who lent a hand in transmuting a desire into an opportunity for 26 young South African men. How wonderful our world would be if we all strove to achieve such a triumph not always more but never less than once in a lifetime.