Every year, I compile an update for former employers, supervisors, educators, family, and friends providing a “Reader’s Digest” version of my life in that past year. Usually holiday letters go out before Christmas, but I do not get my act together until the after New Year. This year was no exception and besides I like wishing people well for 365 days beyond the 3 week holiday season! This year I decided to place the letter on the blog . Cheers to 2016 and please enjoy!
I hope this finds you and your loved ones well. With the exception of the first 22 days, I spent all of 2015 in the beautiful Republic of South Africa as a health extension volunteer with Peace Corps. A year ago, I was hoping that 2015 would be less eventful then 2014 when I lived in 3 different states. Now I have to laugh because in 2015 I lived in 3 different provinces!
On January 22nd, I left for South Africa and started training with the Peace Corps. Training took place in the Mpumalunga province where I stayed with a wonderful Ndebele Host Family. The first three months were crammed with isiZulu language, cultural classes, and technical sessions on HIV/AIDS related topics. On March 30th I earned the title of Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Right after swearing in, I was whisked away in a 9 hour car ride to our Supervisor’s Workshop outside of Durban where I experienced the warm Indian Ocean for the first time.
Once the workshop was completed I moved to my first site in the Central Drakensburg Range of the KwaZulu-Natal Province (KZN). I spent the next 5 months supporting a Faith Based Organization that facilitated 3 Drop-In-Centres for orphans and vulnerable children and a Home Based Care accredited under the Palliative Care and Hospice Association of South Africa. Most of my time was spent on a community needs assessment for the entire valley and data entry for monitoring and evaluation tasks. In June, I represented the organization at a new database training in Pietermaritzburg while networking with other HIV focused NGOs. I also visited other PCVs in my cohort that lived in the surrounding area, and gained an appreciation for the diversity of our experiences.
In August a sudden escalation of violent crime shocked my valley. I was not directly targeted by any of the incidents but after a 2 week investigation by PSCA, the decision was to remove me from site. After 48 hours’ notice to pack and say good bye, I went to Pretoria and lived at a backpackers 8 weeks as I waited for a new site. During this extended stay, I built relationships with the incredible PCSA staff who took care of me during my extended stay and learned from PCVs serving other countries in Pretoria for medical treatment. PCSA encouraged me to visit other volunteers to remain “out in the field” during the wait and graciously granted me 3 trips to support other volunteers. I crossed the East Side of the country from Northern Limpopo’s vibrant Venda Region, the rural areas near Pretoria, the landlocked deserts of KwaZulu-Natal, and near the Indian Ocean at Richards Bay.
I arrived at my current site in KZN’s Amajuba District on October 26thright when South Africa starts to slow down for the holidays, making integration challenging. With that said, this community has been so welcoming and kind. The organization is managed by an altruistic Swazi man, who has worked all over Amajuba. My new role is more of a capacity builder as the first PCV for the organization (and currently the only one in the entire district), and I work closely with district and local government branches. Currently my main task has been conducting yet another community needs assessment, as South Africa’s HIV program funding is dramatically changing. There are still a few focus groups to conduct, but hopefully the final report will be complete by the end of January 2016. Due to the timing of the site change, traveling was not in the cards for the holiday break and I closed the year at site supporting the receptionist at the local clinic. The 3 weeks at the clinic provided me with an appreciation for the challenges of health care access in rural South Africa as well as invaluable isiZulu practice!
Despite the challenges, 2015 was not completely immersed in emotional intensity. There were many fun aspects of this South African adventure from participating in my cohort’s flash mobs, seeing Trevor Noah live, having South Africa’s current boy band craze give an impromptu performance at my municipality’s world AIDS Day event, and celebrating Thanksgiving with the education volunteers. A professional highlight was co-facilitating a workshop in June on health prejudice within the PCV community and how we inadvertently may spread those misperceptions in our communities for PCSA’s All Volunteer Conference. During my site change I also had the chance to brainstorm with PCSA staff on how to better support site-less PCVs during their wait and I look forward to continuing those conversations. Finally, sharing the athletically pleasing aspects and challenges of service here on Eish has been a rewarding form of writing practice. I did not anticipate people outside of my family and friends to read the blog but in 2015 PCVs serving in other countries started to read my thoughts. The cultural insight exchange has been fascinating and I am excited to continue these interactions in 2016.
Hopefully 2016 will not be as eventful in terms of Peace Corps Logistics and most of my time will be spent in Amajuba learning from my community, possibly implementing projects. 2016 is also my window for international travel and hosting potential visitors. Regardless of what the year has in store, I know there will be invaluable field experience to gain in global health. South Africa is frustrating at times, but I feel fulfilled collaborating with the community to address health concerns now.
My current plan is to finish service and embrace South Africa until I leave (life willing) in March 2017. In the meantime feel free to contact me via e-mail, always welcomed blog comments, or through LinkedIn.
Wishing everyone loved ones a happy and healthy 2016 from South Africa,