Recently I published an article in the “Sunnyside Up” the PCV newsletter for South Africa, on site changes. I wrote this after several conversations with other PCVs that faced site changes during their service and feedback from PCSA on how to move the needed conversation forward. I had said PCVs review the article before I sent it to the PCV committee behind the newsletter, and PCSA staff review every article before it is submitted. Despite this extensive process, there has been some backlash over my apparently irreverent remarks. After reflecting for a few weeks, I still decided to share it on the blog. Even though it was written in a South African context, there may be a PCV serving another post struggling to support a PCV friend in a similar situation. Also some of my thoughts could apply to anyone (regardless of DSM diagnostic labels) that falls into a tough situation.
**Full disclosure: My viewpoints do not apply to all PCVs that have had a site change or PCVs that have mental health needs. I know many people who do take comfort in some of the remarks I counteracted in the article.
With that said, I have a request due to hearing the same problem with a variety of health needs. I beg y’all unless a person explicitly indicates “be/stay/focus on the positive” is a helpful phrase, please do not tell someone in an upsetting situation (especially with chronic health conditions) to do so. It comes off as extremely condescending and can make an agitating situation worse. The brain does not work like a light switch, you have to be in the right mindset to do said commands (in the middle of internal chaos, is not the place to try and maneuver the non-existent, metaphorical, switch). With a mental health need, it takes a while to reach that level of cognitive awareness.
Thanks for hearing me out,
Until last August, the ambitious PC phenomena known as a site change was not on my radar. The one memory I recall from PST was a sentence from a security session, detailing that it was a remote possibility during service. Then a sudden increase of violent crime in my area and my planned projects became irrelevant as I packed up my belongings with 48 hour notice. I became the enigma of a site-less PCV and thrown into an emotionally intense experience.
Site changes are an unusual experience, but all PCVs regardless of their performance during service, race, or gender identity are not immune to a site change. Most site changes are involuntary and sudden, related to security. In ideal circumstances, all SA PCVs would experience a fulfilling 2 years in one community but South Africa is unpredictable. I still agree with PCSA’s decision, and waiting in Pretoria as opposed to staying in a place where my safety was at risk was definitely the lesser of two evils. Even with a level of acceptance with the situation, it was still hard.
There is a misperception that a site change is a quick fix for PCVs who are struggling at site. Site changes are not enjoyable experiences for anyone involved (PCSA, the former community, the new community who has to adapt to another PCV, and especially the PCV who gets the brunt of the stress). Yeah, Pretoria is a nice break for a few days but being site-less in Pretoria, shuffled between backpackers, and having your belongings locked in the APCD office without an end date is unsettling. You are there until a new site is found and prepared. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict a time length of the wait because the site placement process is complicated and the PCSA staff are always juggling additional needs. In the case of CHOP, you have to find a community with a relevant NGO and there is not a guarantee you will speak the same language let alone be in the same province. Then when an organization and housing have been identified, it can take a few weeks to make sure housing is ready.
When a PCV friend is subjected to a site change, it can be difficult to know how to support them verbally. Depending on the person, “stay positive” either makes someone’s day or accidently invalidates their feelings. Comments that are safer bet are along the lines of “Hang in there,” or ones that appreciate their resilience because it is a very frustrating situation. There were moments where I was excited about the possibility of a new site, and other moments when I was homesick for the Drakensberg. It is okay to say “That really sucks” or “I am sorry”. Site changes suck, no one is a bad PCV for admitting that. Granted if you do reach out, it could be on a bad day where it feels like no progress has been made. Be prepared to hear some negativity. Also, personal evaluations of how PCVs are handling an extended Pretoria stay or worse, how their past behavior possibly factored into a site change are not helpful full stop.
The other thing PCVs can do is offering site-less PCVs opportunities to get back in the field. All I wanted to do was go back to work, and graciously made three visits to support PCVs with their projects as I waited. Even if it is just shadowing your organization or school, providing a safe space for a couple days means the world (and curbs Pretoria spending and ruminating). Also be on the lookout for potential organizations or schools that have housing options to host a PCV. Three of my friends found potential sites, and even though the options did not pan out, it let me know that the PCV community still wanted me in South Africa. Finally still look after PCVs after a site has been identified, walking into a new community and starting over at any point during service is still intimidating.
Also if anyone wants support from someone who has gone through this process, a place for a site-less PCV to visit in the Duke City, KZN area after January 2016, or is up for brainstorming better ways to support PCVs during a site change, feel free to reach out at (my personal email).