Independence is Overrated

This July 4th, I am proud to be from a county where we are starting to “check ourselves”…just as PCVs do in cross cultural interactions. The debate on confederate flags needed to happen a long time ago and it warms my heart to know that progress is being made, albeit after horrendous circumstances. My North Carolinan family resides in a state that is naturally beautiful with delicious food. There are way more things to take pride in that our less than amiable history. It is impossible to forget racial injustice in the United States regardless of flags. It is easier to have the conversation about race when certain flags are out of vision (no South African Province flies the Transvaal flag from my knowledge).

Also, I have renewed faith in humanity because the Supreme Court rights injustice even though there is opposition. It takes courage to ensure that due process actually is enforced in the states. I read the decision and disagree with the dissenting opinion that this will end the debate, but maybe we discuss other concerns beyond marriage which we kept getting stuck on. As a young asexual who in turn technically identifies as LBGTQ+, I welcome the new opportunity to discuss how my country views sexuality, gender, and parenthood in general. This ruling directly impacts several loved ones in a positive manner. There will be disagreement within my family members and PCV cohort on this news. While this saddens me, I respect all opinions. I will always remember sitting in my South African bed room at night after a rough week when my mother shared this news during our phone call. I shrieked for joy…because that is how mature twenty somethings react to hopeful news like we are back in High School.

There is miles to go before we sleep but I am thrilled that progress is being made!

Inspired by a fellow PCV in Macedonia, in case anyone wanted to know how to say “Love Wins” in isiZulu here is my attempt.

Uthando lunqoba!(remember the “q” is a palate click… Uthando Luwina also works!)

July is here and as I try to keep warm while Drakensburg unleashes its cold fury, America is gearing up for the 4th. I am in an interesting predicament as a semi-part of the US Government serving in amaZulu tribal authority. Until recently I did not think about paring red and blue together for outfits, but then I started graduate school…Bear Down y’all! Usually I acknowledge the day by blasting “Born in the USA” or “American Girl” (any other 80’s rock fans here) while being wary of extreme nationalism and managing over stimulation (fireworks are not my friends). These days I am not concerned about firework-triggered wildfires, but more about how America views independence.

I did not realize how much I valued independence until I moved to South Africa. As an autistic independence or living away from parents is the ultimate goal in the US. I defined myself as a resilient person because no matter what agitation life threw at me I was always able to maintain some sense of independence. Even though people have been too kind in calling me altruistic, the fact is that I have always lived for myself. I always have my own needs to manage and agitation to direct away from others. One of my many (thankfully there was more than one) reasons for doing Peace Corps was to continue testing my independence, even though you relinquish a bit of your independence.

Do not expect to walk into Peace Corps anticipating you will learn how to live on your own. You may get my unique situation where one of your roommates is a 7 month old and your assignment is to work with a group oriented culture for 2 years. In my case, it is providing an invaluable learning experience.

Okay, yes Peace Corps is very much self-directed. It is on me to show up to work, obtain groceries, and if I was not motivated to do the Community Needs Assessment it would not have gotten done. However my direction is impacted by a major road sign: amaZulu culture. I live in amaZulu tribal authority where it is all about relationships. I recently got a powerful reality check of how my attempts to survive impact the rest of the community.

I will explain in another post but my site transition has been extremely difficult due to unique circumstances. Last month, things escalated to the point where my supervisor and Peace Corps staff had to use their scheduled site visit time to mediate with the host family. Everything is fine now, but during this mediation I got some really valuable feedback. If a child walks into a Zulu household, even if they are not biologically related they can expect to be fed. In the context of this situation, I used to take the hot water made for the entire house each morning for bathing. Around the middle of May I noticed that it would stress my host sister out when I would try to refill the kettle after I took the water (the way I was raised is that you leave something they way you found it). I decided to start making my own hot water in the morning (to bathe). I felt so proud of myself, thinking that I solved mine and the family’s problem…until recently. Turns out not taking the water is not being a part of the family.

I am a part of this family (albeit not in a biological sense) and introduce myself with a Zulu surname. This means using the family’s filled to the brim fridge and using the communal hot water in an area where water is scarce. We share laundry lines and food (this afternoon Mama gave me a slice of steam bread just for visiting). I am far from independent in South Africa. Without my family, I could not survive this new environment.

With this realization, I am now starting to combat the belief that if I am not independent then I failed. This week I heard some sad news about my friend back home. We were diagnosed with autism around the same time, have supportive families, graduated from high school together, and she is 2 days older than me. Recently she had a medical set back which means she will be under her parents’ roof longer. I always believed that she was capable of living independently, so to process the situation I enlisted the help of my friend who serves as a PCV in Pretty City. Before she started PC she was a special education teacher, and with that perspective shared some wise words: Independence is fluid.

What may seem obvious to some was mind-blowing to me. Independence, this hardline concept that my country embraces, is actually a diverse experience. It is not as simple as having financial stability, being able to use a toilet, getting out of the house or getting dressed. Independence does ebb and flow. There are periods of life when things are going well and then challenges arise and there is no other option but to lean on others for support. My close friends in SA 31 have reached out to me for support and in return listened to my vents. Our communities are wonderful, but it makes you feel better talking to another American who understands how aggravating lowshedding really is. I do not know how we could maintain our perspective in an extreme experience without it.

The concept is much more blurry in amaZulu culture because everyone supports one another. My cousin also has a 7 month infant (November 2014 was eventful for the family) and at 22 she is trying to finish metric. Every school day she gets up and gets her daughter ready for the day. On the way to school she drops her daughter off with a relative who watches the child for the day. I have not heard of “day care” in my deep rural areas because there has not been a need. Gogos will take care of their grandchildren so their children can help with the house. There could be mixed interpretations of how this impacts South Africa’s social issues, but if you saw the unconditional love my host mom has for my host nephew and second cousin….I would say this emphasis on family is a positive.

As we approach July 4th, I realize that my new found experience with independence probably clashes with holiday values. However I want to ask how this cultural perception is serving us? Even if medical and mental needs means that someone requires constant care is valuable to the world. They are not failures because they are not able to obtain traditional experience. The same friend I mentioned earlier also entered a relationship and learned how to drive before me. There are areas some social cues humans grasp quicker than other humans and vice versa.

My PCV status does not necessarily mean I am more independent or less (although in a good way it is looking like the later). Even as a PCV, my independence is limited by my agency’s rules and also my community. It is a bizarre paradox to articulate outside the PCV community but my wonderful country director says that in order to have this experience of living in another culture alone, they clip your wings a bit. On the community side my wise classmate once said, a RPCV who served in Paraguay, “you can only do what your community will let you accomplish.”

Sort of along the same lines, it was a group effort to create the Declaration of Independence right? I think the founding fathers realized that the world would move to a global economy, where isolationism would eventually cause problems. Even more of a reason to learn about other cultures and how to best support them on their terms.

Independence is a balance: too much or little can cause problems. However at least now I am to see independence in a more complex manner….and starting to see how it can help or hurt me as a PCV.

There are somethings the AmaZulu excel at. Fluid independence is one of them.

Off to listen to Neil Diamond “They’re coming to America…TODAY.” Enjoy the holiday and celebrate America’s diversity stateside for me!

All the best,
Katey-Red

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