(My) Interrupted Service: it is what it IS

I have a feeling this is going to be a melodramatic cluster of words; regardless of what diction I try to maneuver. Here is how I broke the news to my cohort with my dark humor: latrine fiasco of 2015, instead of sending a general courtesy e-mail saying that my phone was out of commission, SA 31 received an obituary for Ruby A. Blackberry. And ETing is Peace Corps lingo for early termination ie quitting before the 27 month commitment is up

Hey y’all,

Someone said my blackberry obituary of April 2015, made it sound like I was ETing. So in the spirit of my ironic predicament, here you go.

 After a 9-week valiant search for new housing, Katey Redmond’s Peace Corps Service came to an unfortunate but peaceful demise at the age of 15 months. Throughout a 15-month tumultuous service consisting of phone mishaps, unstable sites, and lots of reluctant backpacking, Katey gained invaluable field experience and renewed passion for her pursuit of a career in global health. Her service will be remembered as (among other things) the unofficial Pretoria concierge for med-evaced PCVs and new PCSA office visitors, the girl with 6 South African Names and 5 phones, and brief time as M&E Champion. While she wishes she fulfilled her commitment of 27 months, she remains extremely grateful for the 15 months she experienced. It was a privilege to live in the beautiful Drakensburg and Amajuba “place of the doves” as a PCV. The opportunity to experience rural South Africa on the level she did will probably be a source of entertaining stories and reflection for the rest of her life.

Katey wishes to thank SA 31 for their kindness, shelter, laughs at her quirky sense of humor (seen here) and companionship. She also would like to express her gratitude to the Peace Corps South Africa Staff. Together they tried everything they could to make South Africa work.

Optional Condolences can be sent via email (Katey realizes that it is hard to find the right words to say in this situation, do whatever works for you). She is also open to any suggestions to the question, “If you had a free year and 3 months, with limited funding what would you do).

As of May 11, 2016 I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, after my country office petitioned the regional office for what they call an interrupted service (IS). IS simply means that PC headquarters viewed that my ability to continue my service was out of my control,basically an honorable discharge. Despite mine and PCSA’s best effort to make things work, South Africa did not work out.

I wish my blogging absence was because the organization put me to work and my service was finally evening out. To be fair, until middle of February things were going well. After the Blogging Abroad challenge, I was reenergized with post prompts for Eish. The host family relationship appeared to be going swimmingly. At work we were having a focus group fiesta to wrap up the Community Needs Assessment and a potential grant application. The organization and I were planning a World TB day event and a few other projects. I was hopeful that I would at least have a project under my belt before Mid-Service Training in April.

Then my plans came to a screeching halt. On February 25th while in Pretoria for a meeting, I was suddenly informed by my PCSA supervisor that I needed to move again as the host family wanted the house back by the following Friday without a clear reason. At this point anything I would tell you would be speculation but PCSA told me it had nothing to do with my behavior. This commenced a 9 week search with Mr. Swazi and the staff. I was back stateside for planned annual leave/vacation for 3 of these weeks but returned with confidence that this would be resolved.

When I got back to South Africa in mid-April, I waited in Pretoria while staff diligently searched a 3 more weeks for options in the community without luck. The only other health program site available at the time was in an area notorious for harassment, and PCSA did not want to put a female there.  With that in mind and the fact I just past my Mid-Service Training with a prior site change experience, they contacted the regional office in DC for an interrupted service. When D.C. gets involved, things have to move quickly. The morning after the decision, we made it to Amajuba at 4 PM,quickly sorted through all my stuff before the 6 PM sunset and said good bye to Mr. Swazi. After a night in Duke City, I went back to Pretoria where I scrambled to complete all the logistical tasks to close of service. I flew out May 11, 2016 as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, one week after the decision was made.

And yet here I am. For the past two weeks I have been sitting in New Mexico in the humbling situation of moving back in with parents and 3 teenager siblings, trying to process what happened.  As for next steps, I do not want to share anything until something is concrete but I am scrambling with applications and the battery of medical tests required for all PCVs when they close their service.There are a few more entries I want to post for closure’s sake by the end of June.

In the meantime, I want to be clear: I do not regret my time with Peace Corps South Africa. Even with all the site instability, I would do it again.

If I only got 15 months in South Africa, it was time that I may have not had without the opportunity. I am still sad about what happened, because I feel like my time in Peace Corps should not be over but my description of service is still 3 pages in Word.

As always thanks for reading.

All the best,

Katey-Red RPCV extraordinaire

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We Want Your Mental Health Experiences (Please!)

 

Sanibonani,

Over the past few months I have had incredible opportunities to interact with PCVs all over the world. One of them is Char in Nicaragua, the gifted writer behind “The Vulnerable Traveler” (for those of us who admire Brene Brown’s work, Char picked the coolest name for her blog). Char is also passionate about mental health concerns abroad. We are considering a column/blog feature about PCVs who are open about their chronic mental health needs and how they navigate their needs abroad.

If you would like to contribute your life experience to this much needed conversation, feel free to send me an email. If you know another PCV at your post who might be interested, please send this post to them. Right now we are just measuring interest in this  idea. Thank you for the consideration!

Also, I have had a few requests for more “PCV with Autism” posts and a few will come next month. I do have a “Peace Corps Autism Style” tag for all my random reflections, but I have noticed that my tags and categories are a mess (5 years on WordPress and I just found out their actual functions…typical Katey). I will try to fix it over the next month to make autism an actual category and the blog more navigable among a few other format changes.

All the best,

Katey-Red

Katey’s Traditional Holiday Letter: 2016 Edition

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!

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Yes, America you can see cactus in South Africa or ihlohlo as they are known in KZN. This one is about 1000 meters from my Amajuba home.

 

Sanibonani!

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,

Katey

I Can Have my Mail (Back)and Read it Too!

Sanibonani loved ones,

After 1 month of waiting for an opening, and 1 month after purchasing access, I finally have the all clear to share the new mailing address! I updated the contact page to reflect my triumphant return to snail mail capabilities!

This development is brought to you by Peace Corps South Africa and Mr. Swazi.

PCSA: We give you supervisors who will go up to bat for you.

Mr. Swazi:  I make 2 month bureaucratic gridlock vanish in 30 seconds thanks to cultural knowledge.

Life Administration: Intro

Sanibonani,

Hope everyone had a nice Christmas and Happy Boxing Day! If it fell during the week we would have a day off, but this year since it is a weekend it just serves as a relic of South Africa’s English heritage. Mine was pretty uneventful, minus a hilarious lunch with my host family. The highlight was while dishing the food I mixed up my isiZulu and Setswana vocabulary and my goofy host sister (who was in a cheeky mood) caught it on video and played it all afternoon for a comedy show. Happy to provide the event’s unintentional entertainment. Also, it was cold and misty in Amajuba. Not the near 100 degrees Fahrenheit from Christmas Eve, which I was anticipating for my first Christmas in the summer. The host family says cold and misty is normal for this time of year. I am starting to label Amajuba just as indecisive as New Mexico and Colorado weather wise.

Anyways a couple weeks ago our Director of Programing and Training (DPT) for PCSA asked CHOP volunteers to submit a few “Day in the Life” examples for the incoming CHOP Group…soon to be SA 33! I was too busy to participate when PCSA needed the submissions, but during a slow afternoon in the clinic  I remembered my frantic google searches a year ago and how I frantically scoured blogs from SA 29 (the CHOP cohort before 31) to obtain current knowledge about the PC experience in South Africa. Then I realized that even though I cannot articulate an average day, there are specific pieces of “Life Administration” (as the DPT called it) I can share. For the next 4 days I will have posts sharing specific aspects of surviving in South Africa.

Before Life Administration commences, here is a brief disclaimer.  Every Peace Corps experience is different, especially in the diversity of sites within South Africa. Take it from someone who has lived in 2 sites and visited 8 other PCVs at their sites, my KZN focused insight may not be relevant to your experience. However, if you are open to the thoughts any PCV experience has the potential. The most helpful pieces of advice that keep me grounded in service came from RPCVs (my graduate school classmates)who served in Eastern Europe, South America, the Tropics of Africa, and Central America …aka not South Africa.

In that Spirit for SA 33, the future and Present PCV community, and their loved ones who may enjoy it, here is a glimpse of how I live in South Africa. Even though some of the topics maybe random they are significant parts of my experience.

If anyone from SA 33 is reading this, we are so excited to meet you in South Africa! Enjoy the last few weeks in America and get ready for the adventure. Boring is the antithesis of South Africa, you are always on your toes here.

All the best,

Katey-Red

 

 

It’s beginning to Look a Lot Like…Summer

 

Sanibonani,

December 21st marks the  shift in seasons and while the United States braces for snow and colder temperatures, South Africans (and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere) are now in the throes of summer, even though I have been saying (in incorrect isiZulu) inhlobo lapha/summer (is) here since mid-November. It is also 2 days until the highlight of December Merriment. South Africa definitely observes Christmas as roughly 80% percent of the population identifies as Christian (as of the 2011 census). My organization has been closed since 15th of December.  Ironically my Christian host family does not make a huge deal out of Christmas. They are planning a large lunch but New Years Eve is their main celebration.  

I am actually okay with a low-key Christmas as I try to minimize the hype anyways. The crowds, social cues with gifts, and over the top decorations are sensory overload for this autistic. Which is why I am getting a kick out of South Africa’s upscale grocery store Checkers use of Ram Jam for their holiday adverts, as it mimics the season’s intensity fully! For the past decade, Christmas was off my radar until the end of finals and this is the first year where December was not completely dominated by exams or term papers. In the South African summer the intensity still exists, but from the bizarre juxtaposition of evergreens, Christmas lights, forest green, crimson red, and navy blue snow scenes that I am convinced will eventually absorb enough sunlight and self-combust in the 99 degrees F heat. I never knew how much the Northern Hemisphere dominates the image of Christmas until I became a PCV.

Christmas is observed without a major fuss in my family (minus the one year the Manager was born on Christmas Eve).  However December is one of the best times of the year to be back home when the crisp air wafts the sweet aroma of pinon pine burning in fireplaces, fresh bizcochios melt in your mouth, and the Sandias look like a magical pink velvet cake in the winter sunset especially when it is iced with snow. Most important my favorite part of being a New Mexican is a quintessential Christmas Eve site in Albuquerque: luminarias (or farolitos… the terminology depends on the cultural area). The flickering lights gently light pathways and inspires personal reflection over the past year: what I appreciate the most about the holiday season.  It is just hitting me that I will not see neighborhoods expression New Mexican solidarity and since it is fire season paper bags and candles are not worth the cultural exchange. No luminaras feels weirder then sweating at the site of (the South African) Duke City’s fake Fir.

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Duke City’s Christmas Tree, my theory why it is 1/4 decorated is that a poor city worker got heat stroke…it was almost 100 degrees F this day

Most PCVs in South Africa spend the holiday on vacation. While it would be nice to experience Christmas on the beach, due to the timing of the site change travel was not in the cards for this December. I am spending all 4 weeks at site, volunteering at the local clinic reception desk (before people claim that I am an altruistic person, this gives me something to do and I need sensitive statistics from the clinic for the needs assessment….this is a way for me not to completely rip them off). Families from the larger cities come back to the rural areas and when accidents happen (like the little boy from Johannesburg today who fell on his hand while playing) people need to access local clinics. My main tasks are registering clients into the computer system, signing or creating their clinic cards (and there are different cards for general illness, chronic illness, HIV testing, Post Natal Care, Antenatal Care, and Family Planning), and organizing patient files.

It is only day 3 but I am learning more about the health needs in this portion of Amajuba, obtaining much needed isiZulu practice, and gaining an appreciation for the clinic’s challenges. People are not open about their status so I did not see HIV as a prominent health concern in the area until I registered over 20 people into the digital register for ARV pickups (and that is a time span of 3 days). I am also seeing many young women who are very pregnant or who have just given birth to 6 day old babies. Today was a holiday luncheon and the Sisters graciously shared their potluck of wors (sausage), buttery pap, and oily vegetables (I ate every bite). The consensus is that the amaZulu are busy with cleaning their houses for visitors before Christmas and do not get sick, but around New Years Eve the clinic is in high demand.

When I am not at work, the other main project is typing the community needs assessment 2.0. I am fortunate to work for a supervisor who prioritized this report and we were able to scramble with information during an unideal time of the South African year. With World AIDS Day and closing the org, I have not had the chance to organize the notes from focus groups. We still need to have a few more focus groups of People Living with HIV (PLWHIV) when we come back from break, and hopefully we can hit the ground running with actual projects in February. I am exploring a prevention campaign in late March and a specific support group, and am also researching educational materials during the break. This plus bonding with my host family, blogging (anticipate, dance practice, reflecting on 2015 and reading my stockpile of books…I have no time to dwell on the weirdness of my first Christmas away from home.

But if you are in New Mexico, please enjoy the luminaras for me as I embrace South African Christmas with cold adaptations of Christmas treats, copious amounts of Cranberry Kiwi Juice, and the gingerbread scented handwash I brought from the States.

All the best and a happy and healthy iKhisimusi (next year I will master happy holidays),

Katey-Red

 

Postal Problems

(A Lesson on South African Bureaucracy)

Sanibonani,

I have a bunch of posts in the pipeline and as of yesterday the organization is closed for 5 weeks (yea December/January Merriment). I have received several requests for my new address and wanted to provide an update on the information.

Do I have a PO Box? Yes…and no. In a sentence I paid for a PO Box in Schnizeland but it cannot be accessed. If you do not want to read why I am address-less for Christmas 2015 feel free to exit now.

Ironically I have a brand new post office in the service centre 1000 meters from my house, but no PO Boxes are available (typical South Africa). The nearest PO Box is in Schnizeland, a 30 minute taxi ride away. I am frequently there for Municipality meetings anyways, so it is (supposed to be) convenient. Unfortunately right when I arrived, the post office changed the locks for the exterior PO Boxes. They have been waiting for the national office to send the keys for 3 months now.

That is where we are today. At this point I am not sure of a course of action besides waiting until after the holidays. If I do not get keys by the end of January, I may go down to Scotland and buy another box (even though that is out of my way and a couple hundred rand) as walking around Duke City’s taxi rank with potential parcels would be a security risk. Rest assured, I have to have a box (so can PCSA sends my passport with the official South African Visa for international travel…but that is another story) and there will be a chance to send your coveted snail mail.

Anyways, or the first month at site I visited the PO Box and the polite clerk refused to give me an address until they received the locks. Peace Corps requires emergency contact paperwork completed within 30 days of arriving at any site, and I finally had to pull the “I work for the American Government…not really but gives me clout” card. They agreed to give me an address so I could get the site locator form in, but I have no key to open the box.

At a glance people may wonder why this is a problem. Could they not just get one of the many Indian shops in Schnitzeland to make keys for the boxes? Or leave the boxes open and risk postal theft? This is where the most valuable lesson from my exchange student days in Botswana applies: Disregard preexisting standards of American or European efficiency, else you will be perpetually frustrated. Because bureaucracy.

South Africa is this interesting dichotomy of cultures that value bookkeeping (Afrikaaners and English) and indigenous  cultures who until record-valuing cultures established powerful governments, did not care about said bookkeeping. The other half is that corruption and identity theft are concerns here. For me to even access the address I had to provide proof of residence (handy letter from PCSA office) and my personal passport for identification. There is also no capability to cancel a registration.

The first month at site I visited the PO Box and the polite clerk refused to give me an address until they received the locks. Peace Corps requires emergency contact paperwork completed within 30 days of arriving at any site, and I finally had to pull the “I work for the American Government…Not Really but Provides Reluctant Priveledge” card. They agreed to give me an address so I could get the Site Locator Form In, but I have no key to open the box. I had problems paying with my card (Schnitzeland is not amiable to PCSA’s bank of choice), and I bought the PO Box 30 minutes before I had to run to Duke City for a meeting because the previous Friday the manager told me Monday morning was the time this could be done to meet PCSA’s deadline.

 The transaction was going well until the machine did not register my card. 2 tries and the manager demands that I go to the Caltex station a block away and obtain a few hundred Rand for the transaction (which is right next to the local taxi rank…not happening). I told them I was leaving and to cancel the transaction I would deal with it later. Instead of moving to the  5 people behind me in the que, the manger gives me an exasperated look while the clerk explains that I am now in the system and it cannot be altered. Nice Clerk saves the day by trying the card one last time…and success. Third time was a charm and bureaucratic equilibrium was maintained.

In a group-oriented culture that values power (amaZulu and a lot of the indigenous cultures), the customers are not the priority. It is the validation of every government official involved with a process that matters. With so many levels to appease, realities of a rural post office in rural KZN are not at the forefront of shakers 5-7 hours away in Pretoria. Does this sound familiar (cough the US)? This is not a situation with political parties, but it is the challenge of governing a large country in terms of geography and population. My bet is in Pretoria is that the Head of Department is thinking about how to reduce corruption and minimize security threats. Until they have the locks ready they will not send them because that risk is not worth it. The local office staffed by amaZulu are also trying to maintain their influence, and are not going to circumvent Pretoria and offer unsecure mailboxes.

Hence, this Christmas I have no PO Box, cannot switch my Pick n Pay Smart Shopper card to stop the onslaught of promotional mail probably hitting site 1.0’s postal box, legally leave the country, and am forced to wait until the holidays are over to figure out alternatives. I am done being upset over this, thankfully a PO Box is not one of my PC negotiables and there is more to service than snail mail. In the end it is an epic story to tell, unique to life in the Rainbow Nation. My adapted goal is to have a functioning mailbox by my birthday (you have 6 months Postal Service) and obtain an absentee ballot for the 2016 elections. My frustrations pale in comparison to the local staff. I am sure that if they had control, they would have fixed this a month ago (and not just because the annoying American keeps asking about progress…but PO Boxes are the core of postal services aka their job).

Ngiyabonga for the patience and for thinking of me. I am really fortunate to have people who like me enough to make the effort to send mail. I will be sure to share the address once I can open the actual box. In the meantime blog comments and e-mail work. When snail-mail returns as an option anticipate lots of responses, as I can send mail and buy stamps at the post office 1000 meters away (but not receive mail).

Oh, South Africa…

All the best and Shosholoza,

Katey