All About My Peace Corps Site

Apologies for the long break. I’ve been sick (again) with mandatory Peace Corps stomach problems and a twisted ankle–the result of trying to jump a fence. On top of that, I’ve been more inundated with work than usual since the Easter break. I have not had a lot of time to sit down and craft the beautiful blog posts you’ve all come to expect.

So here’s a slightly edited version of a short article I wrote for the internal Peace Corps South Africa newsletter. It’s about life at my site. Enjoy:

One of the mantras of the Peace Corps is that every Peace Corps experience is unique. I knew there was something different about my site when some language teachers burst out laughing when my assignment was announced. But the moment it truly sank in that I was living in a different universe from the “typical Peace Corps experience” was an afternoon watching TV with one of my colleagues. The TV was on a random music video channel, and a typical African house video was playing—DJs, cars, dancing women. Then suddenly, the camera went to a wide shot and I recognized exactly where they were: the local nightclub, 3km from my house. I live and work in MIKEVILLE, a large township. It is very different from most Peace Corps South Africa sites.

Most superficially, I am able to live a lifestyle that is hardly considered developing world. I can walk to the bank, the grocery store, even to a 24-hour gas station with a convenience store. The electricity has only been out once over 6 months, and the water is on for at least a few hours every day. Many of the roads are paved. Car ownership is high and public transit is ubiquitous. I visit my friends and we talk (in perfect English) about current events and play the latest video games.

Of course, not all of my site is as developed as my neighborhood. Informal settlements crawl up the sides of the mountains, and it is not hard to find heart-wrenching poverty. In training we were warned about the duality of South Africa—developing and developed world in the same country. This duality is a fundamental part of my daily life. Over and over again, the economic schizophrenia punches me in the face: manicured lawns literally across the street from crumbling brick shells; shacks poking out from the hills above the new shopping complex; the stand selling old vegetables next to the car wash with a line of gleaming BMWs.

And the sheer size of my site means that I’ll never get to know many of the people who I live with. Sometimes, everyday feels like my first day at site: “Are you lost?”; “Where do you stay?”; “Can I have some money?” It is a good thing I like introducing myself, because I have to do it almost every single day. The number of people living here likewise creates an equally intimidating number of community institutions. There are at least five secondary schools here, maybe twice as many primary schools, dozens of churches, and probably hundreds of social organizations. The flood of options means many residents get their sense of community from somewhere besides their geographic neighborhood. As a volunteer in a new culture, this sort of environment is difficult to navigate. But it creates plenty of opportunities for work. Ten volunteers would find plenty here to keep them busy.

This large variety of everything—languages, cultures, people, potential projects—is what makes me love my site. I could take or leave the Posh Corps accoutrements and consumer conveniences, but I do not think I could adjust to village life at this point. As one of my students said, “MIKEVILLE is a fast place.” Keeping up with this fast pace can be a challenge, but it is certainly not boring.

2 Comments

Steve Sherman says:

n.b., you forgot to edit out your site name in the last paragraph.

10 May 11 @ 7pm

John Neel says:

I like the humor of ” mandatory Peace Corps stomach problems”. I also like the sensitivity to the poverty and the diverse incomes.

23 May 11 @ 9pm