An American Born Free’s Stream of Consciousness

Isi Zulu: Ushinchi
isiNgisi: change
Meaning: extra imali/money or what South Africa constantly under goes.

This month I passed a personal and bittersweet milestone. As of May 18th, I have been in South Africa longer than I have been in Botswana. Hilariously, despite a concerted effort my Setswana remains better than my isiZulu! With the exception of the United States, South Africa is the country I will spend the most time in and perhaps “know the best”…if it is possible to fully “know” a country with as complex of a history.

I am a weird candidate for experiencing modern day South Africa. While it is hard to pinpoint any country’s age, most people consider the current Republic of South Africa’s start date the September 1994 elections. South Africa and I are roughly the same age although technically I am a few years older. I am a ex post facto “Born Free” as they call generations who do not remember apartheid. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage as a PCV. Unlike some of my cohort members who have vivid stories of Mandela’s release, I will never be able to fully appreciate how far South Africa has come. Simultaneously, I am familiar South Africa’s tumultuous past, but it does not cloud my view of the present. South Africa has never been “on the brink of civil war” in my eyes. Also, I am an American girl, and my perspective is always limited by white privilege. There are certain experiences I cannot relate to or people do not feel comfortable sharing with me.

In the midst of moving rooms (same house but a moving/construction process nonetheless) I started to find rand coins and examine them. Like the United States, the Rand is divided into 100 cents, and has 10, 20, and 50 cent pieces. Then there are 1, 2, and 5 Rand coins (which are invaluable when you have a taxi route that costs exactly 21 Rand to town or 12 to the main intersection)then the bills are in 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 rand increments. With my limited income, I amass plenty of coins but I am always taken aback when I look at the year the coin was processed. I wonder how many people touched this rand and what they experienced.

Another task that I sometimes do at work, is create photo copies so our clients can obtain government grants. It amazes me how they entrust me with their marriage, death, and birth certificates (there have been a few close calls where I misplaced a document in the office) and pay the 1 rand fee my org. charges. I may have mentioned this, but identification is very impersonal in South Africa. Seeing an ID book of someone who grew up during apartheid policies and is classified as “Black” still makes me cringe. This week I had to copy a birth certificate of a child born in 2008 and I thought of my three younger siblings in America.

PCSA started the same year my younger sister was born. My brothers were born when HIV was rampant in South Africa My director describes those years when people were dying of HIV left and right in my valley as crazy. Crazy, because for the exception of a few living nonagenarians who saw the Spanish Flu outbreak, few Americans can fathom what it is like to see entire households wiped out by a single virus. Maybe it is fruitless to contemplate, but had my family grown up in South Africa during the 2000’s our connotation of HIV would be different. As HIV has become a manageable health condition (with adequate access to medication and care), I see how South Africa’s attitudes to HIV change. Just as their attitudes towards race and poverty have as well. What used to be massive issues with invisible solutions, are now combated by dedicated War Rooms, government departments, and communities.
I am sure as I become more familiar with South Africa, my thoughts will continue to evolve.

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