Redefining my Service: Effort not Quality

Last Monday in the afternoon right before the receptionist desk closed, one of the nurses asked for my 2015/2016 calendar because the medication schedule she was prescribing to a Gogo, rolled into 2016. She wrote the dates down and as she handed back my planner, she said, “He has been bad to me, 2015.” She was struggling with her son’ varsity fees but I immediately commiserated on how. When I was walking home, I wondered. The easy thing is to say 2015 was a bad year and expect 2016 to right wrongs and give me a functional PO Box darn it! Yet Peace Corps Service let alone life is never that black and white.

Honestly I hope 2015 takes a cue from T.S. Elliot and goes out with a whimper. We have had enough bangs from the last quarter of 2015 that the percussion session is overpowering the symphony of my emotions, and after having my electricity malfunction for the 5th time in December with my 5th phone purchase in South Africa (because phone 4 had to take a trip to the Free State for repairs…I wish I was kidding), the year over stayed its welcome. Yet, I do not think it is fair to classify 2015 as a bad year. It was still my first year living abroad and I did have great moments (seeing Trevor Noah and Dbn Nyts live are highlights…but my annual holiday letter is coming next week).

The start of the Gregorian calendar also corresponds with near arrival of the new CHOP trainees and marks almost one full year that I have lived in South Africa. Currently I am in an interesting mindset as I am redefining my service. I walked in to South Africa with minimal expectations, simply that I would learn and gain substantial global health field experience while blogging my random perspectives on the experience. Then I arrived to Pre-Service Training, and learned about all these elements that enriched other PCV’s experiences in South Africa.

We spent so much time learning isiZulu that I thought by this point I would have enough knowledge to do basic health education sessions. There were committees you could apply for and serve the PCSA community while practicing leadership skills.  As I have documented here, none of those things have happened. I am almost one year into service and I have no projects, no committee membership, no grant experience, and I can barely squawk enough isiZulu to tell the children to get their mouths off the communal water spigot (let alone calmly initiate a teachable moment).. With HIV funding rapidly leaving South Africa, I am not sure if I will be able to do substantial projects as a PCV.

And you know what? It is okay. I am not wasting my time here. There is this taboo in the PCV community that if you do not do projects you are an absolute failure. But for me service is not about PEPFAR Appeasement, as many RPCVs have told me it is about the connections you make with host country nationals (HCNs). I can summarize my service up to 2015 in two bullet points: I tried to break stereotypes within the PCV community and in South Africa and respect amaZulu culture. What I am seeing is those efforts, are paying off.

I may not be able to pronounce my community’s name after two months (traditional amaZulu surname with no clicks…eish we are getting there) but I can do all 3 palatal clicks, greet with the traditional curtsy and indirect eye contact (there are perks to being an autistic PCV), and navigate taxis. I am not on a committee but through this blog, I am able to bring my diverse perspective to service to the PCV conversation. I have no projects but developed a critical eye for global health programs and ensuring country ownership. My public health interests have broadened to tuberculosis and passion is growing for addressing water and sanitation concerns.

Could I have performed better in 2015? The jury is out, but as I move towards 2016 I am channceling IWisdom from my Teenage Brothers (which sounds like a Youtube comedic Vlog). Before I left for service Dinky put this quote in his letter:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill

I am only saying this in writing but my younger siblings have a clearer perspective on life than I did in my adolescence.

December 2015 was a perpetual Murphy’s Law for me, at times it felt like I could not get anything right in South Africa. On one of my many trips to Duke City to try and sort out my electricity/phone, I ran into Pick n Pay to obtain a few supplies. My bank account was dangerously low (which is a vulnerable position for me) and in the near 100 F heat I was done. I had to get my other bags from the parcel counter (most South African stores have parcel counters to try and minimize theft). Per the protocol for interactions in KZN, I greeted the security clerk and we have a full 2 minute conversation in isiZulu. The clerk complimented me saying that I speak isiZulu beautifully and thanked me for speaking isiZulu. I blinked back a few tears on the way out, because at the beginning of PST I was quick at grasping isiZulu. Then external circumstances took place, and my isiZulu is at its current level. Yet for that man it was not about perfect grammar, I acknowledged his presence in his culture as opposed to imposing my English on him.

Finally, I am not sure if I have conveyed amaZulu culture effectively on Eish, but with 1,500 views from the State’s alone maybe at least one person here thinks of South Africa (or the PC experience) beyond the ubiquitous stereotypes. Even if you got here by googling “Dropped Phone in Pit Latrine” (according to the WordPress stats, one person did…sorry that there are no solutions at that point),  ngiyabonga khakulu for putting up with my writing practice, health diversity advocacy, occasional global health rants, and yes mundane commentary on life as a PCV bumbling around the Rainbow Nation. I hope 2016 provides more insightful material to keep y’all entertained or thinking.

May the next 365 days be happy and healthy.

All the best,





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