Soliloquy of a Site-Less PCV

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,

Katey

 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).

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We have a site!

We have a site!
After 8 weeks and 3 days (or 2 months depending on who’s counting) of waiting, I finally have a new site back in KZN. Technically, the fantastic PCSA staff assigned me to a potential organization on October 5th, but we were waiting for housing (specifically burglar bars to be installed) and in PC anything can happen. I did not want to say too much incase housing did not pan out (the departure date was pushed back multiple times). PSCA has given me the all clear to head back to the field today.

How I am feeling? Excited and nervous, because this will be an intense experience for the next three months. We have basically reached November, and SA shuts down for December Merriment in 5 weeks from now. Not a lot of time to integrate (especially for someone of my caliber…when it takes me months to figure out social cues as is), and since I am walking in month 10ish of service to an organization that has not had a PCV before….the next 3 months will be an awkward dance. In the end, I think this will be a good personal fit and PCSA did a thorough search so this next site will be hopefully successful. Besides I have walked into Tucson, Durango, Botswana, and now South Africa and found my place in communities where everyone was previously a stranger. I got this, but still start popping the popcorn…this will be an entertaining ride to watch.

With that said, I am so ready to leave Pretoria and get back into the field. While it has been nice having Skype access and watching my guilty pleasure (Dancing With the Stars…Bindi and Derek for the win), I have put in my patience. Besides I need to get out of the capital before it takes anymore of my modest volunteer stipend!

As for the new site? Here is what I know:

1. I am currently the only PCV in the Amajuba District. Amajuba means place of doves in isiZulu so it is fitting for a PCV to work there…yes I am still rocking the isiZulu. Thank goodness I have been practicing my clicks.
2. It is another homebased care/drop in center set up. I am the first PCV for the organization.
3. As for what my projects/work/tasks look like, it depends on what the organization and community want. TBD
4. All items of importance (clinic, work, house, and taxi rank) are within a 500 meter distance from each other. This means I need to find a new form of exercise as I am not in the mountains anymore and thus cannot cheat by simply walking to and from work (driveway of my former home was an 80 degree incline) for fitness.
5. Speaking of home, apparently I have my own building on an amaZulu compound with a host family. AND I am the only PCV in the organization and host family (which is a critical detail).
6. Closest town is about 30-45 minutes away and shopping town is 1 hour way. Actually it is a shopping city (code words to be determined), with a nice mall and private hospital! Closest PCVs are an hour away and I am half a day’s distance to some of the SA 30 education volunteers. We are already discussing inter-sector collaboration opportunities.

What I do not know?

1. How frequently I can blog (or what wifi will look like) or check my graduate school e-mail account, as I cannot get Catmail on my phone.
2. A new PO box is, I am fortunate (and so appreciative) to have a lot of people who desire to send me postage but we still do not have a PO box. My fingers are crossed that this will be resolved in the next few weeks, but once there is a PO Box my parents will have that information until I can get it up on the blog.
3. Anything else that was not mentioned above.
I have to tackle last minute logistics before the PC transport arrives, but thank you all for the support during this ordeal. All of the kind thoughts, skype sessions, and e-mails did so much for my confidence while I was in a vat of ambiguity (and I will respond to all the catmail e-mails eventually). Here is to the next stage of adventure in the Northern Battlefields!

All the best,
Katey-Red

Bushwacking…in the Botanical Garden.

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Every time I roll into Pretoria, the lyrics to The Virginia Company randomly echo in my head

Remember Pocahontas, and the opening number?
“for Glory, God, and Gold…And The Virginia Company”
It sounds to me like “Pretoria, Pretoria, a Beautiful city.”
Pretoria is an aesthetically pleasing city. It is known as the Jacaranda City, because of all the Jacaranda trees morph the city in spring. I lucked out and my elongated stay in Pretoria overlapped in Jacranda season. An entire city engulfed with purple flowers and their sweet (but not horribly pungent) aroma is a site I would not see back in New Mexico!

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Jacaranda Seasons

For a couple days with a set end date, Pretoria is a nice break for PCVs. After a week though the novelty wears off. The excitement of identifying country embassies, eating amazing Greek or Indian food (I know my favorite places in Pretoria) , and access to running water no longer curbs my cravings for village life. Regardless of my distaste for long term urban life, Pretoria is in South Africa and thus an adventure waiting to happen. So PCT from 32 (who is waiting for legal clearance…so they are not a PCV yet) and I decided to make the most of our wait and explore Pretoria Botanical Gardens.

The antics began en route when the Uber driver’s iPhone over heated (which was how he measured our fare). We had no idea about the final faire, but 32 was ready to walk to the garden and I was dead against it (we were in an unfamiliar part of Pretoria). Thankfully the driver turned off the phone/price meter and dropped us safely at the gate. We paid our tickets and I (being used to the Albuquerque Biological Park) anticipated a map with directions as part of the package. Ha! 32 and I walk up a pathway to see if there is a map, and wind up backtracking 15 minutes later. We find a map right at the entrance and use our smart phones to take a photo. There are signs towards a waterfall we thought was dictated on the map.

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We reach the (human made) waterfall easily, and find a pathway up to places unknown. Of course we took the path above the waterfall and ran into the succulent garden. My adopted pet at the old site was the aloe plant behind my house so I can appreciate succulents. As the path continues we run into cacti and beautiful views of the city below. At this point we have no idea where we are except in the middle of the National Botantical Garden. The Latin species identifier plaques offer us no cues.
We continue our pattern of behavior and meander on to another path. About 5 minutes later, a BIG FURRY RODENT scurries on to the path. Bear in mind that prior to this we were surrounded by plants where the only hazard was pricking yourself on a cactus needle. We were not at Pretoria Zoo so there was no contingency plan for a wild animal. As we watched the animal for 2 minutes I whipped my phone out and snapped a quick photo, contemplating how this conversation could go down with the PCMOs. “So Katey, you are here on leave in Pretoria, what situation could you have possibly gotten yourself into where you need rabies prophylaxis?” Thankfully the rodent moved and the Pretoria Botanical Garden remains a safe place for PCVs to visit. Right after this sighting, we started to see signs talking about the survival instincts of dassies. By deductive reasoning, we stumbled upon the Dassie Trail and my potential host of rabies was actually the star attraction.

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After our dassie encounter we stumbled upon the national herbarium which happened to be the location for the local book store (and possibly some lovely postcards). Anyways, we try to enter this sketchy building (with signs that say visitors only all over the place) at the bookstore, and the door is locked. We encountered another sign the defined a “visitor” by “appointment only.” At that point our stomachs took over and we headed to the café (after walking in the middle of a tar road…somehow we lost the dirt paths) for one of the most entertaining lunches I ever had. The entertainment was from the wisteria tree, which triggered my allergies and also garnished not just my lunch with its falling blossoms but my head and backpack.

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The last leg of our outing involved bushwalking through the arboretum and a construction site in the middle of the path and finding the Enabling Garden for medical and mental needs right when we were heading to the parking lot.
Compared to staying in the backpackers for an afternoon, this was infinitely better and entertaining. Without all the directional snafus, the garden would not be as fun.

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A Very Venda Weekend

All photos courtesy of the Psychologist! Thank you again!

There are many reasons why I opted not to E.T. (early terminate or quit Peace Corps) during this long wait but if I can place credit in one spot, I stayed because Venda skirts are awesome. When I was pulled from site, I had an irrational aversion to being placed in Limpopo. I do not know why, you would think that the most linguistically and arguably culturally (in a tribal sense) diverse province would be my preference. In the midst of a security pull, the brain complies some bizzare thoughts.

Example of a Venda Skirt (someone graciously let me borrow this one.

Example of a Venda Skirt (someone graciously let me borrow theirs for a couple hours).

Anyways, Venda is a traditional culture in Northern Limpopo’s Southpansberg Mountains. The woman’s traditional 2 piece skirt is with cotton striped fabric (which reminds me of sarapes), elaborate embroidery or binding and engineered to withstand the extreme heat. As a graduate student in Tucson the heat control skirt peaked my interest,.

On the weekend I was pulled from site, my New Mexican magnet was functioning and I finally met the New Mexican PCV from SA 29.  She is a rockstar with at least 13 different projects serving various Venda Communities (the organization manages Drop in Centers and Home Based Carers in multiple Venda communities). We hit it off well and she shared some amazing projects and an invitation to visit. Week 5 the backpackers was overbooked (again) and I decided to take this opportunity to explore Venda. On the 7 hour bus ride, I saw the general areas where most Limpopo PCVs reside, and while they do not have a 9/10 bus ride to Pretoria, I can appreciate how Limpopo PCVs also deal with South Africa’s vastness in terms of distance.

I met my friend (the Psychologist) at the suburb of Elephant Head City (the capital of Venda). We walked to her beautiful place where she has a big avocado and mango tree in the back yard. We would sit on the porch with our drinks, discussing life’s events each evening. We went to bed early, preparing ourselves for the long workday.

The next morning we had a healthy breakfast and walked to her org. The Psychologist is the only non-South African at her organization and it is awesome to see how she integrates with her Venda cowokers. After being introduced to her organization’s staff members we gathered our equipment for the day and set off to work with the day’s task.

One of the 13 projects under the Psychologist is bee keeping, aka out of my comfort zone as I do not like flying insects with stinging capabilities. I think are at least 8 hives in the project, and various drop-in centeres under the psychologist’s Org try to produce honey that they can sell. The first community we looked at was about 30 minutes from town, and the bee hive was on the chief’s land. When I say Venda is a traditional community it is not a hyperbole. I had to greet the chief in the traditional way; waiting  with bare feet on a blanket and then when the chief approaches, kneeling head down with a flat back, and then laying sideways and hiding my face. Once we gained permission with the chief, we evaluated the hive. The chief mentioned that the hive was dead and upon investigation the box got wet. So we cleaned the hive out and used corrugated iron to make a roof-like cover.

After an hour we went to another community on top of a hillside. The chief (who also hosted the community’s hive) recently passed away, so we gained the permission of the uncle. That hive was also inactive probably because it was in the sun. So it was back to greet the acting chief for permission to move the box, and we placed it under a shady tree. By the time we maneuvered the hive into an amiable position with another makeshift corrugated iron roof, it was 4 PM. The Psychologist really wanted me to see active bees so we quickly gowned up and checked the organization’s hive. Despite my delayed timing on the smoker, the bees did not sting and I did not panic.

Making bees unhappy for the sake of honey

Making bees unhappy for the sake of honey

Holding the most bees I have ever encountered in my life

Holding the most bees I have ever encountered in my life

Smiling, not grimacing...see I was a willing participant and not traumatized!

Smiling, not grimacing…see I was a willing participant and not traumatized!

In the end, bees are tolerable. I still hate wasps.

The next morning I sat in on the psychologist’s co-piloted project juvenile diversion program with the district. About 8 youth in conflict with the law and social workers came for a session on conflict resolution. Even though the entire session was in Tshivenda, I could see how much the social workers sincerely cared about their clients and that the participants loved acting out the dramas! We had to leave early for the SA 32/31 Venda area meet up in Elephant Head City, but it was rewarding to see a small part of the program.

Before we met up at the post office, the Psychologist and I stopped by the fabric store to look at the patterns available for a mosisi. Neither of us bought anything, but we marveled at the myriad of stripe patterns on the skirt. As for the lunch outing it was awesome to see the 32s thriving and I thought enjoyed my mango lassi and Pakistani food. The most eventful thing that happened was my lawn chair I was sitting in broke…one second I was right in middle of a conversation and suddenly BAM… on the floor to the shock of 12 PCVs! The poor waiter was alarmed but I guess the chair simply buckled. I was pretty calm about it, no bruises or injuries. Soon the group went our separate ways and the Psychologist and I chilled with a delicious and local fruit salad (Limpopo is known for the abundance of fruit) with grapefruit, pineapple, papaya, watermelon and sprinkles of cinnamon. Ah the semi-tropical lifestyle.

My finally day of the trip consisted of laundry (believe it or not, it is challenging to hand wash clothes in a back packers, I sort of cheat and only wash underwear and underarms of shirts) and one of the few times (the Gogo let me take advantage of her organization’s  laundry facilities) I was able to fully wash my clothes during this site change. Then we toured to Phiphidi waterfall for a nice hike and picnic lunch. For some odd reason Phiphidi reminds me of a Greek organization.

The main waterfall

The main waterfall

The Psychologist called this the Wonder Woman Pose...I call it keeping my balance while my feet ae on two rocks.

The Psychologist called this the Wonder Woman Pose…I call it keeping my balance while my feet are on two rocks.

It was a lovely weekend shadowing an amazing PCV and exploring a dynamic culture. I hope this is not my last trip to Venda, as there is so much more of Northern Limpopo I want to see (and I still need to get one of those skirts)!

My attempt at a Venda pose, while checking on the Drop in Centre's library, yet another one of the Psychologist's 13 projects.

My attempt at a Venda pose, while checking on the Drop in Centre’s library, yet another one of the Psychologist’s 13 projects.

Pitching Fruit

When planned experiences deviate from the norm, one of the go-to American cliches of comfort is “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade”. This phase is one of the many plaques of American craft store phrases of positivity, complete with sappy grosgrain ribbons and flowery calligraphy. We are so uncomfortable with acknowledging hard situations that people sloppy attempt to shut down negativity with proverbs associated with fruit. Here is the hard truth: life is messy.

Those lemons that pummel our emotions are not beautiful Meyer Lemons with a shade of yellow that cues “Walking on Sunshine.” No, they are green, unripe, lemons who had no business falling off the tree. There is no amount of sugar that will change the fact that green lemons straight off the tree (or adverse situation in life) are sour and ugly. Eventually with time, the lemon will ripe and can be made into delicious desserts. As you process the situation, there are still bitter moments that are okay to acknowledge as it helps you move into a stage where the lemon is actually worthwhile. There is no right or wrong way to handle a green lemon situation, because it is hard.

The site change was a massive green lemon. Y’all probably know this by now I keep things real, and sometimes knock the rose colored glasses off of others with a force I wish was less harsh. Unfortunately, in a Peace Corps setting (and residing in a backpackers for 6 weeks) it is hard to keep those emotions private. Multiple PCVs have taken the liberty to share their insights about how I am handling the situation. The jury is out of if I have handled this well or poorly, but it probably has not been aesthetically pleasing 24/7 (spoiler alert, nothing in Peace Corps is…even without a site change).

I am not a placid person who quietly takes my lemons and waits for them to ripe with rose colored lenses. Here is an accurate description on how my anxious brain handles lemons in general with this process (no credit for the originality), let alone green lemons.

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As much as I dislike cliches, the “making lemonade” part comes once I am at the new site, but without the ingredients (new organization and housing) not much can be done.
So what do you do when the PC lemons are unusable? I reflect, cry, vent to anyone who asks, try to ignore the obnoxious PCV grapevine’s commentary regarding the situation, budget to make the modest stipend last between reimbursement requests, and do my best to remain productive. In other words you deal with it. I do not want to label my behavior as positive or negative, or evaluate my performance on the situation. That just sets up self-judgment. All people need to know is that I am holding up and still working with PCSA as a team on this (but really want to go back to work).

Now that soliloquy is out of the way, where have I been for 7 weeks (yep…reached that marker last Friday)? A good portion is on a couch (in the Backpackers or the PC library) curled up with wifi or a book. Most of the time I have been in Pretoria, with a few opportunities for work related travel. I did help with two tasks at the country office, typing a workshop evaluation and editing a fellow PCV’s grant draft. There have been several regional medical evacuees and these PCVs have taught me about country programs in Botswana, Mozambique, Swaziland, Madagascar, and Uganda. Also through spontaneous circumstances I crashed SA 32’s swearing in ceremony last month!

The PC staff and I are in agreement that extended time in Pretoria without a set end date is bad for mental health. I was encouraged to find opportunities to get back in the field. It took a while to obtain permission but thankfully I knew that there were other PCVs who were once in my shoes. One of the PCVs of SA 29 and I really hit it off during my PST. She happens to live near Pretoria and I spent 3 days with her. The most memorable activity was helping her Zazi (female empowerment and sexual health program for SA) club on an introduction to cancer discussion I co-facilitated. My cancer analogy (weeds in a flower bed) actually turned out semi-well.

Drawing flowers

Drawing flowers

If you can forget the f bombs underneath the chart, this could be an iconic PCV shot (thank you parents for point it out). There are some things common in all teenagers regardless of culture, in this case both American and South African Adolescents like to have fun with chalkboards

If you can forget the f bombs underneath the chart, this could be an iconic PCV shot (thank you parents for pointing it out). There are some things common in all teenagers regardless of culture, in this case both American and South African Adolescents like to have fun with chalkboards

A week later, I returned to KZN for a week for my “KZN Potential Sunset Tour”. There I supported the Social Worker, Anthropologist, and the MSW couple during a substance abuse retreat we were planning. We also stayed at the Anthropologist’s organization on the Tugela River. After the retreat I went across the province and visited my dear PCV friend (the Gogo) near the Indian Ocena. I explored a previously unfamiliar portion of the province, examined a potential site, delivered wheelchairs to clients, and celebrated Heritage Day deliciously! We also watched “The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency” to our hearts’ content.

Me

Me “in ” the Tugela River, which I have made my designated Rio Grande

After the “KZN potential Sunset Tour” I left Pretoria one last time for a site visit, but that is worth its own post (coming soon)!

If there is one thing that I have done during this site change, it is make the most of it…with my own style.

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Now that is what I am talking about!

All the best,

Katey-Red