Against almost all odds, I’m finishing up a successful Peace Corps service. I have no idea what to think about this. But my mom really wanted me to write one last blog post so here we are. This is pretty much a rambling journal entry so excuse the organization.
I’ve spent the last few months wishing I were home. South Africa is a wonderful beautiful amazing country, but South Africa, for me, has been difficult. It’s been the person you fall madly in love with only to find out they have too much of themselves to figure out before they could ever fall in love with you. It’s been the relationship that was a bottomless well of miscommunication, but you gave your entire soul to anyway. It’s also been the relationship you cannot leave even when you know you must. As much as I love this country and so many of its people, I feel continually hurt by it.
The fact that I can only think of my service and my relationship to South Africa in terms of failed romantic relationships is worrying for a whole slew of reasons, both abstract and very personal, and is probably not something I should share on the internet. But I say it here because, well, first because I’ve developed a surprising habit of over sharing, but more importantly because I think it describes how deeply personal the last two years have been, how much growth I’ve experienced, and how scary it is to leave it behind. As I come up on my last month in South Africa, I don’t want to leave. But I also do want to leave, because I need to go home, and there is a fairly sizable list of things, both reasonable and not so reasonable, that make me acutely miserable here. I am also terrified of going home, of letting go of South Africa, of the people I love here, and of the person I’ve become during service.
I’ve grown in so many of the ways I wanted to. I have a solid understanding of the HIV epidemic and the intersection of illness, stigma, socioeconomic status, and hope. I’m significantly less ignorant about issues of race than previously, although still learning. I have an increased ability to respect those whose intelligence is of a vastly different type than my own. I know what I want to do with my life professionally. I’m emotionally and intellectually independent. I’m happy despite pretty frequently enduring relative hardship, and being alone.
Of these things, I don’t know what will transfer. I’m not really sure what of those things above, and more I haven’t listed, is truly growth rather than the product of an extremely different and new environment.
A huge part of my identity during service has been the idea that I wake up in the morning with the immediate goal of learning about and helping others. I walk out my door and talk to someone who has an entirely different world than I do, and we either find our commonalities or explore our differences. I bike to talk to women about a virus and epidemic that threatens their survival and the lives of their children. I failed a lot at that, and had probably about zero impact, but most days, I tried. That’s what Peace Corps service is about, and also I think what being a human is about. But I’m not sure that’s what life in America is about. So I struggle to see how, in a month’s time when I’m back home, I’m going to continue to live for those goals the way that I am able to in South Africa.
There are also several parts of my identity here I’m eager to leave behind. I’m relatively unstable. I’m more stressed than I’ve ever been. My life oscillates between such extremes that I think sometimes my brain just shuts off, and so my emotions spiral. The fact that these extremes are even afforded to me, and not to those with whom I spend most of my time, like my host mom, adds another heavy layer of anxiety, or guilt. These feelings are compounding as I get ready to leave my village for the last time, because I know my life will continue to improve, but the lives of the people in my current community will continue to be difficult, possibly even increasingly so with the worsening drought.
South Africa, being post-apartheid, has also made me hyper-aware and anxious of racial issues and differences, past the point of it being at all constructive or useful. The other day on my way to pizza in Pretoria, I had a near break down over the constant and blatant racism and segregation that I was seeing and experiencing and was so scared about my own level of complicity in and/or obliviousness to it that I burst into tears. I had to sit down on the sidewalk to call a dear friend from home, paralyzed by the thought that I was just another white person who says they aren’t racist but continues to subjugate people of color at home and in the global south. We had a long conversation about how sometimes this country can really fuck you up, and I realized I have an undue amount of anxiety surrounding race that can often surface in negative, or at least awkward, ways, and that I’m also just still learning. I’m ready to be in a significantly less racialized society, though I know the U.S. is far from perfect.
So as much as I know I it’s time for me to go home, and as excited as I am to be home, I’m also nervous. I don’t really know what life in America is all about. As I said before, I’m not sure it will be conducive to the way I want to live my life. I also just haven’t been there in two years, and my life when I left was sheltered and fluffy and fun and now possibly the apocalypse has arrived and I’m not sure how to deal with that. Or it’s exactly the same as it ever was, but I’m not the same girl for whom a sweet treat and a good cry can fix almost any ailment. Are the problems that drive me to exhaustion in South Africa not also problems at home? I am increasingly sure that moving back home will be not so much of a respite, but rather a relentless continuation in learning how to balance my life against any number of stressors and everyday evils.
I really wish I could end my Peace Corps service with a clear-cut, renewed sense of beauty and compassion, and an increased belief in the simplicity of life and human connection. I hear volunteers say shit like that a lot, and I seriously doubt they are paying attention. Instead, I feel a far more intimate connection to the incredibly damaging power of human nature, the ways we bend towards power, and how people experience generations of pain. South Africa is a country full of beautiful, generous, and hard working people of all colors. It was ripped apart by colonialism, racism, and fear (ahem, America), and the edges remain sharp. The healing is still a process for everyone. I’m soft, and those edges poke the shit out of me. I feel a little like I’m full of holes, windows into my heart like Paul Simon sings, but I didn’t lose any love, just got blown apart.
South Africans are not soft though. South Africans are the toughest people I have ever met. Some have hardened in ways that hurt, created their own sharp edges to fight back, I guess. You can see that in the persistent racism and the tragic, often racial, crimes. Others, so many others, have hardened, or maybe figured out how to stay soft but still tough, in ways of serious and unending beauty. You see this in their openness and their generosity, which is literally limitless, their lack of discrimination, and their profound sense of hope, manifested best in their ability to love despite all the hurt that’s happened here. And so in these South Africans, whom I’ve met in all corners of the country, I guess I have learned a lot about the relentless beauty of the human life and everything it encompasses. It hasn’t been an easy lesson, and there is literally nothing simple about it, but I’ve seen that all these things, beauty, hope, human connection and compassion, can, with hard work, persist through ugly, ugly times. And that, I think, is what I hope to bring home with me. So, thank you, South Africa, for showing me how to be tough, and for everything else, including all the pap. Especially all the pap.
SALA KAHLE, cause I’m about to be outta here.