“When you are done teaching, what do you do?” My South African host mama curiously asked.
Even prior to my arrival in South Africa, I was confronted with the doom of “what’s after the Peace Corps?” I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some ideas brewing in my head about the future, but when my host mama asked me while sitting in our living room, my mind was a cloudless sky. Nothing. No thoughts. No ideas.
“Well, I’m not really sure,” I finally mustered out.
After a few quick moments of needed silence, I had those distant ideas come back to me and I listed them as quickly as they pounced into my mind..
“I’ll travel Africa, being sure to get to Rwanda. I could go to Europe and work in a refugee camp. Maybe I’ll go back to school. I could move to LA and live near my brother for awhile or maybe I’ll go to New York with my sister. I’ve thought about living in New Orleans with one of my best friends, John. Maybe I’ll buy a van and travel cross country alone. Or maybe I won’t do any of that and go home, overwhelmed with possibilities and the weight of my Peace Corps experience, stay there eating ice cream on the couch for sometime..”
After rattling off this absurd list of ideas and possibilities, my mama stopped sewing to look up to me across the table. I could see her eyes staring directly through me. Not to ignore me, but rather to see the root to my tree of possibilities.
“Think easy. Don’t think tight. I see you crouch like this (she moves her forearms near her ears and buries her head into her chest, squishing her face together as if she were practicing hiding under her desk for an old school tornado drill). Take it easy. Don’t think. When you think hard, it will be hard. Think simple. Then it’s simple. Two years is nothing. You think it’s long time or short time but it’s nothing. Even now, you are here two months and ready to leave to Venda soon. It goes fast. Think simple.”
That’s my mama. Offering the comfort of delicious home cooked meals, artistic hand-crafted clothes, and her graceful wisdom across the same table. She welcomed me into her home boasting a smile that broke language barriers and gentle yet firm hand that tugged me into the family, immediately sewing me into their warmth.
Over the last two months in South Africa, I reread my personal journal, dating back to 2/16/2016. My style of journaling reflects my emotional state at the time rather than scripts of memories of life events. It has become an immense therapy to reread journals, seeing myself grow towards my truth with each entry, still continuing to this day. I remember how I felt when I wrote these entries. Since February 16th, 2016, they reflected this idea of “stuckness” (don’t look this up in a dictionary, definitely not a word). I’ll attempt to bring this feeling to life for your understanding.
I’ve had two dreams for a long time. College soccer and Peace Corps. Nearing the end of my career at Hiram, with one season left, I knew one of my dreams would soon be finished. As the campus got younger and I got older, I was coming close to my next dream and my patience was twiddling down to a thin string. I craved something beyond the tiny college town filled with political and sociological theories about a world that I was begging to see with my own eyes. This “stuckness” had more complexity than wanderlust. While dreaming of traveling, I also had an unspoken agreement with my best friend that we wouldn’t talk about the end. We couldn’t handle the thought of our ridiculous moments of laughter and watching each other grow coming to an end. Even now, I’ll hear a song by Akon (don’t judge) and instantly I’m transported back to spring break with the windows down, salt in the air, and the voice of Gail next to me singing with her sunglasses on and her hair flying crazy. It brings tears to me eyes. I didn’t want to imagine not watching Game of Thrones with Pretz every night or going to Taco Bell with John at 3AM talking about Lady Gaga’s new album and what types of witches we would be. As you can see, this feeling of “stuckness” was truly pulling me between two facts I couldn’t face. I would have to leave the wonderful world I created for myself in Hiram and I would have to wait to create another new world for myself. I was desperately jumping between dreams, trapped in the purgatory of growth. That was my “stuckness.”
When I arrived at Hiram, it made sense to me. I thought, “Oh, this is it.” When I hugged my host mama for the first time, the feeling was recreated. Again, I thought “Oh, this is it.” I had been waiting for years to get into the Peace Corps and then months to get to South Africa. Finally, I was here. And when I arrived, I was greeted with strong arms and a tight hug. All this time, since February 2016, I was writing of something missing, something I couldn’t reach, something I couldn’t even describe for some time. And suddenly, it was right in front of me. A new, different comfort. I don’t mean comfort as in “a nice bed and good food” (though I do have both a wonderful bed and delicious food). I’m taking about the snuggle onto one small bed watching Mrs. Doubtfire kind of comfort. Openly talking to my mama about diarrhea comfort. The eat as much as you want to without judgment comfort. The kind of comfort that makes me feel as though a part of myself has always been in South Africa. I found a missing piece.
If you aren’t familiar with the structure of the Peace Corps, let me give you a quick run-down. First, I arrived in country to begin Pre-Service Training. This training is 3 months long, during which I am in classes to lean TshiVenda (my host language!), safety and security information, health information, cultural lessons, teaching information, practicum teaching, and field trips. After training, I am assigned to my own site to teach and work for 2 years. During this training time, I live with a host family. And as you can see from above, man, I love my host family.
I have a mama, sweeter than the sweet tea she always drinks and carved from solid rock. Working 4 jobs as a single mother (her husband passed in 2005), taking in a 4th child and treating me as her own. Next, I have three siblings. My older brother Kenny, who is 27, is easy-going and quick to crack a joke with me. There is Mosa, 19, quiet and reserved but intelligent. He’s disciplined, incredibly thoughtful, and intriguing to me based on his mediocre feelings towards soccer and his love for the Fast and the Furious. Lastly, Palesa, my baby sister. An eight year-old with a diamond smile and a goofy soul. She has more smarts than she would ever credit to herself and is always looking out for me. And though it took her nearly 3 weeks to talk to me, that didn’t stop us from bonding as sisters do. When we aren’t doing the dishes together, accompanying each other outside when it’s dark, or teaching each other games, we are watching Zootopia, Frozen, the Incredibles, SO MUCH Doc McStuffins, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, all things I proudly love.
My family, from the moment they met me, welcomed me as if their long lost family member had returned. They remind me so much of my family at home. They are genuine, welcoming beyond norms, goofy, loving, protective, and close. I was immediately integrated, even if we did things differently or didn’t fully understand each other. Though I describe my family with so much perfection, we definitely have our quirks. There’s a secret battle for me and Mosa to race to the last piece of bread in the morning. I fell asleep watching Frozen with Palesa. We ate an entire chocolate cake in one night. I always forget to close my window and one of them is always reminding me. I don’t like acha (traditional mango/fish salsa type of dish) and we all know it. My mama takes my socks off the line and makes me rewash them when they don’t meet her standards. And thought we can sometimes make each other bonkers, as families do, I am constantly trying to think of ways to make them as happy as they make me.
I have painted a beautiful picture of my life in South Africa. Do not be fooled. It hasn’t all been a sugar-coated fairytale of seamless culture integration and positive self-awareness. I truly love my life here. But just as any person loves their lives it does not equal perfection. I poop in a hole. I’ll freely put that out there, no shame. You should try it, honestly. Very freeing. Anyways, it is currently winter here but getting close to spring. With me only being here a month at the time, I had no knowledge of how pit latrines changed during seasons. So, for a month, I enjoyed my outdoor, roofless bathroom under the Milky Way, admiring the stars as my so-called “gypsy soul” self always does.
Here’s my 5 word horror story:
No worries, I made it safely to the indoors bathroom after the initial shock/panic of cockroaches hailing the pit latrine. Now I know, there are cockroaches in pit latrines at night when it is warmer. And they can fly. Noted. My horror stories pretty much involve any type of bug/small animal near my living spaces. Such as the palm sized spider living above my bed or the frog the hopped out of my bucket while washing my face in the morning outside.
I am ecstatic to be here. Everyday, I get to play soccer with some neighborhood kids who make me feel carefree. The sunsets are absolutely breathtaking. Whenever I am walking in the village, I hear the distant yells of “Hiiiiii” “Hellooooo” “Allie!!!!!” The people in my cohort share the same dreams as me and I’ve made friends who have already brought me closer to who I want to be. I teach kids who amaze me with heir kindness, creativity, and energy. I get to watch my mama create lovely clothes. I take a bucket bath every night. I brush my teeth and wash my face in the sunrise every morning. I’ve gotten to play in competitive soccer games against local teams (these guys are good). I’ve taken great pictures (so I hope and pray). I write everyday and I learn. Constantly. I have loved being here and I’m not sure I will ever be able to express that fully.
There have been some struggles though. I’ve been coping with the challenges of being far from a life I created so long. I wish I could be there to help my best friend Jenna with more of her wedding planning. I wish I could see my sister Suzie enjoy her senior year at Seton. I wish I could watch my sister Emily form her life at Kent. I wish I had more car rides jamming to Prince and Elton John with my mom. I would love to have more spontaneous vacations with my best friend Chrissy. I wish I could see my best friend Erika and have some more picnics. But, (to semi-quote Elizabeth Gilbert from Eat, Pray, Love) the only thing more impossible than leaving, was staying. Some days I feel on top of the world, completely drowning in this new adventure and excited beyond words. I also have times where I plug in my headphones and turn on dramatic musical ballads to do some heavy reflecting. There’s a crazy amount of emotional and mental adjustment, but I have been begging for this challenge for a long time. I can’t imagine living another way right now.
While sitting at the table with mama, a few moments went by between us. Then, mama paused again and said, “Tell your heart ‘I am in South Africa now.'”
That’s where I am. I feel the growth. I feel the love. I feel the confidence, confusion, frustration, trust, pain, and happiness. I found a piece of me that has been waiting in South Africa. And now, I am here.
All my love,