Three High School Classmates Serving in the Peace Corps At the Same Time

October 8th, 2015 by | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

About a year ago, shortly after I started my Peace Corps service, I learned through Facebook that two of my high school classmates, Jane and Chenoa, were about to take off to Africa to serve in the Peace Corps too.  They both applied to join the Peace Corps without knowing that they both had applied until they were accepted and learned that they were coincidentally placed in the same country in the same sector with the same leave date.  Since they both started their service this past January in South Africa as health volunteers, we have been comparing our experiences by posting statuses on Facebook and commenting under our statuses.  We have learned that while some of our experiences are different, we share many common experiences and can so relate to many of the challenges and triumphs that we face on regular basis.

I decided to take our conversations from Facebook to my blog by interviewing both of them so that the readers of my blog can see the similarities of our experiences while living in different countries in Africa.  I would also like for the readers to see the value of being in touch with other Peace Corps Volunteers.  We can learn from each other about how to overcome challenges and provide each other with social and emotional support.

Moreover, who would have thought that three North Springs High School Alumni would be serving in the Peace Corps in Africa at the same time nine to ten years after they graduated from high school.  Check out my interview below with Jane and Chenoa, my two high school classmates.

Jane and Chenoa, two high school classmates, serving in Peace Corps in South Africa

Jane and Chenoa, two high school classmates, serving in Peace Corps in South Africa

In Cameroon, I’m a Community Health Educator focusing on working with persons with disability. I help improve their life through educating them about nutrition, malaria, HIV/AIDS and sexual reproductive health. I host workshops on various health topics. Tell me what you’re doing in South Africa as Peace Corps Volunteers.

Jane: In South Africa, I’m a Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Program (CHOP) Health Volunteer where I focus on grass-roots efforts to address HIV/AIDS prevention, education, and care especially with women, youth, and orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) as well as reduce stigma, discrimination, and gender-based violence. The emphasis of my work can be categorized within the realms of care, prevention and community outreach, income generation, and poverty alleviation. 

Chenoa: I work as an HIV/AIDS Health Educator in the lovely “Rainbow Nation” of South Africa.  As time goes on, I will utilize various art forms to better illustrate and inform people about this serious health issue and other social ills.  My goals here are to 1) Help lower the transmission rate of HIV, 2) Assist People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), Orphans & Vulnerable Children (OVCs), and their care givers and 3) Reduce HIV stigma and discrimination among infected and affected people.  I just began implementation of a Grassroots Soccer/SKILLZ HIV Program that utilizes soccer skills to highlight HIV prevention strategies and lessen stigma/discrimination in the community.

I’m posted in the third largest city in Cameroon, Bamenda. Could you tell me where you’re posted and what is the size of the place?

Jane: I am posted in Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) which is one of the 9 South African provinces that borders countries of Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho.  The geography is diverse with coastal, hilly, plateau, and mountainous regions. My homestay and organization are part of the eThekweni District, also known as Durban, a coastal southeastern city with Indian Ocean beaches and one of the busiest ports in South Africa and Africa.  I live in the Valley of 1,000 Hills which is named after all the hills, cliffs and valleys and is home to many of the Zulu people & their traditional lifestyles. Hillcrest is a suburban city where I work and do most of my shopping.  My work site Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust (HACT) is conveniently located at the center of the city and along the taxi routes for surrounding villages to access services. KwaNyuswa is the name of my stunning village which is in The Valley of 1,000 Hills and right outside of Hillcrest.  The community is considered very large (To give you an idea, we have 5 high schools throughout my village and when I did some community mapping to visit the schools it took more than 3 hours on foot!)

Chenoa: My village post is about 1.5 hours east of a town called Emnambithi/Ladysmith.  It is a “blackspot” created in 1968 by the Apartheid Government when black South Africans were forced from their homelands and evicted to far away sites for the convenience of white farmers.  There are about 5,200 people living in 1,200 houses with the average household of 4-6 family members.  My village is about 3 km wide in radius. 

In Cameroon, as a female volunteer, I get proposals frequently. Have you received them too? If yes, could you share some examples?

Jane: In South Africa, as a female volunteer, it is also very common for me to receive wedding proposals.  On a daily basis, I get proposals from local men wanting to pay for my “labola” (translated as bride price) which is a traditional Southern African custom where the man pays the family of his fiancé for her hand in marriage.  Customarily the labola includes the price of several cows or the monetary value of the livestock. The custom is aimed at bringing the two families together and showing the man is capable of supporting his wife financially and emotionally. The ironic part is that the majority of the time, I have never seen the man before yet he is proclaiming his profound love for me.  Usually I thank the man and go on my way, but sometimes he can be persistent so I have to be firm with my response and state I am not available/interested. Many of my fellow female PCVs also experience similar events, and many of us think a big factor playing into this is simply our foreigner status/appearance.  In my community, it is admirable and “in” for a black man to date a white woman. 

Chenoa: Sexual harassment is my number one complaint here.  I am constantly dismissing marriage proposals, sexual advances, and crude remarks.  Once while walking through my taxi rank, I was grabbed.  I screamed, shouted a barrage of obscenities, and made a big scene but people, including women, just laughed it off and left me to fend for myself. 

Many Cameroonians ask me if I could help them move to the United States. I always have to explain to them the immigration process and help them understand that finding a job in the US is not easy and that there are many Americans who are unemployed and only 1% are truly wealthy. Do you face South Africans asking you to help them immigrate to the US?

Jane: Thus far, I have not had any South Africans ask me to help them immigrate to the US however I have had many share that they would love to go visit America one day.  Some of the questions they ask are:

How much does it cost to travel to America? Do they have black people there (which funny enough is followed by…do you know Beyoncé, Chris Rock, Jay Z…etc? haha) Is it hard to find a job? Is it like our country? Is there racism there?

Sometimes I wonder if the proposals or men who are interested in me are mainly due to wanting a ticket to America in the long run. Who knows, could be one reason…

Chenoa: I often face statements like, “Let’s marry so I can be an American” or “Everyone in America is rich so you must take me there.”  One person was even convinced that “there is gold on the ground in America so you can just pick it up and become rich!”  I had a hard time persuading the person of the countless issues facing most, if not all people who call the U.S. home.  I usually find a common ground by explaining that America mirrors South Africa with a majority of its problems and that South Africa truly is a wonderful place to live.  By complimenting their country, it instills a pride in them they too often do not seem to carry about their place of birth.  I don’t like that they do not revere South Africa as much as other places so I try to highlight the wonderful things about living here as much as I can and that usually makes the conversation steer into a direction I can handle.

I often find myself missing American food, especially cheese and ice cream. I will sometimes splurge on cheddar cheese that are very hard to find and cost $10 for a small block. When I go to the capital of the country, I will spend a good amount of money without feeling guilty on good western food that I cannot enjoy at my post. Do you find yourself missing American food and how do you find them?

Jane: I LOVE FOOD. For those who know me well, they know I find ways to eat and go through any means to satisfy my cravings (within reason…most of the time) I’m very fortunate to live a 20-minute taxi ride away from my shopping town, which is a suburb filled with franchise businesses. Luckily I can get fresh produce and foods that meet a balanced and healthy diet, but I have to budget carefully because of our meagre PCV stipend.  I also find myself spending a good amount of money on items without feeling too guilty about it because it reminds me of home and gives me a little bit of comfort when I’m feeling homesick.  Here is a very small list of things I miss from home (it would be a novel if I included everything):

First and foremost, my mom’s Taiwanese beef noodle soup, all-you-can-eat buffets (where you want to die at the end, but it’s so worth it), Doritos (they have them here, but the flavors are completely different), Brookside dark chocolate covered pomegranates/acai berries, American brand ice cream, Ghirardelli brownies, chex mix, an all-American breakfast, Thanksgiving food.

Chenoa: In many ways, South Africa is a westernized country to be honest.  I can find almost every food I enjoyed back home here in country.  When I travel outside of my village to various cities, I can dine at Dominoes, Burger King, KFC, Subway and even McDonalds.  I have no problem finding ice cream, pizza, cheese, and sweets of any kind (which is probably why I have this lovely additional 15 pounds around my waist right now lol).  The only foods that I haven’t been able to find are Mexican food (I would KILL for a chimichanga right now) and turkey.  Other than that, I’m very satisfied with the food choices here.

Cameroonians eat a lot of beef and chicken with fried plantains and vegetables and various sauces. They also eat a lot of grilled fish and corn. Peanuts are also very common here and they will make peanut sauces to include in meat or fish dishes. Beignets and spaghetti omelets are also common here too. Could you tell me briefly what the cuisine is like in South Africa?

Jane: South Africans love meat! You will find “inyama” (meat) in almost every meal of the day and at any community event. The meat is usually grilled and that is referred to as a braai.  They also eat a lot of maize meal or commonly known here as “pap” and it’s often accompanied by traditional steam bread, beetroot, carrots, cabbage, potatoes, amadumbe (type of sweet potato) mashed butternut squash and spinach. In my community there is a lot of influence from Indian cuisine, so locals cook with curry spices.  Chakalaka is a popular spicy side dish with grated carrots, green peppers, onion, vinegar, and chilli.  The boerewors roll is a common South African treat, as well as biltong (something similar to beef jerky). In rural communities, chicken feet and cow tripe are popular as well.

Chenoa: The cuisine, just like the people, is extremely varied.  There are so many different peoples and ethnicities represented here and it shows in the cuisine.  Traditional foods include LOTS of meat, such as goat, chicken, pig, and beef with pap.  Pap is made with ground maize and is served on the plates of most traditional dinners.  If there is no pap around, you can guarantee that there is rice instead.  Beetroot, pumpkin, cabbage, and grated tomatoes are also common traditional foods.  South Africans also love drinking tea and make it a point to offer it to guests.

There is an impressive Indian population here in South Africa and their foods are just as impressive.  Samoosas, curry, rice, chicken, roti, and the infamous bunny chow are staple Indian foods.  The Afrikaaner population, another large ethnic group found here, has an amazing array of “braai” (barbecue) foods.  There are French, Scottish, English, and host of other nationalities represented here so the list of foods is truly endless.

I experience power outages frequently here. What about you?

Jane: I have electricity the majority of the time; however South Africa is plagued by what is referred to as “loadshedding”. With loadshedding electricity comes and goes and affects the whole country and more often so in rural communities.

Chenoa: The power grid in South Africa is unstable so many places experience load shedding.  Load shedding is when there is a temporary power outage.  These usually happen in 2-hour increments.  I experience them almost daily where I live.

Acquiring internet access has been challenging in Cameroon. 3G network was just built shortly after I arrived in country. My internet options are somewhat limited. I can get a plan with 3G network but has limited data which is very expensive or or I can get a plan with the slower speed that is charged by the number of hours and is less expensive. At the moment, I switch between the 3G network plan and the slower speed plan. Internet access has been very important for me as staying in touch with family and friends and connected to the world through social media is my way of helping me know what is going on in the world and informing everyone about my life in Cameroon. How has your internet access been? Is having internet access important?

Jane: Internet access has also been a challenge for me here in South Africa, but fortunately I was able to purchase a local blackberry phone that allows me to get a monthly unlimited data plan at a reasonable price.  Although very slow at times, I am able to use whatsapp, email, and facebook which are the main ways I stay connected to family and friends abroad and in-country.  At my work site, we are lucky to have internet for business purposes. In my shopping town, I can go to cafes and restaurants where they usually offer 30-60 minutes of free wifi.  I can also use a cable modem and add data onto it if I need internet in remote places and in my community. Again, the connection is usually extremely slow and fickle but it is better than nothing and having the ability to communicate with loved ones is most important to me and worth any kind of wait, price, and headaches.

Chenoa: Having internet access is of the utmost importance to me.  When I am not connected via social media to family and friends, I find myself in a terrible Peace Corps slump and I feel very isolated.  I can access Internet through my phone as long as I am not experiencing load shedding.  It is affordable.  Usually I spend about $15 USD per month to purchase airtime (phone call credit) and data for Internet use.

I have been finding that privacy and personal space is absent in Cameroon. For example, when riding a sedan taxi, I can be squashed with nine other people in the car. I find Cameroonians to be blunt. They will give very honest thoughts without realizing one person’s feelings could be hurt and often ask questions that are too personal. It’s important to note that Cameroonians may perceive these conversations differently by thinking that they are not sensitive and they are just simply very open people while the Americans may perceive them to be sensitive. They will sometimes knock on my door early in the morning on Saturday when I prefer to be resting. Do you experience lack of privacy and personal space?

Jane: In my community and many other places I’ve travelled in South Africa, lack of privacy and personal space is also the case.  People often do not knock before entering rooms, will be eager and quick to touch your hair and skin, tell you how you’ve gained weight, and so forth.  In taxis it is common to find extra people crammed in so you have children, chickens, potato sacks, buckets all piled up on your lap or in your face.  Initially it was very challenging to adjust to this culture of physical proximity and the normalcy of it, but as time went on through educational conversations many of my local family and friends have met me in the middle to respect my personal space and feelings.

Chenoa: Privacy and personal space?  What is that???  South Africans do not prescribe to the notion of “private space” as we do in the States.  I think I have developed slight claustrophobic tendencies since the beginning of my service in South Africa.  I find myself hyperventilating and having mini panic attacks when I take khombis (taxis) here because, inevitably, someone is either sitting on my lap, handing me a baby to hold, and/or hitting me in the back of my head with a bag of potatoes.  People often refuse to open windows as we ride too because they don’t want to mess up their hair which makes me even more paranoid as there is typically that one person who doesn’t cover their mouth while coughing.  Also, when walking through village, people often want to know what’s in the bag I’m carrying, where did I just come from, and why.  These are cultural norms I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.  Usually people are not perceived as nosy or rude when asking these questions but it is just not comfortable for me.

Time. Cameroonians are often late to meetings. Buses often do not leave on time. Do you experience time not always being followed on schedule?

Jane: Yeeeeeees!!! There is a real thing called “South African time” here and I struggle with it day in and day out because I am a very punctual person and value being on time like it’s no one’s business. Since moving to South Africa, I’ve had to force myself not to get overly frustrated when people say they’ll meet me and I’ll be lucky if they even show up 4 hours late. There are words that are commonly used like “I’m coming now now/just now” so interchangeable meanings that could be at the moment/tomorrow/perhaps never.  Yes, there are many times I want to rip out my hair but the reality is I can’t get too worked up over this part of “culture” and to make magic happen, I must lead by example and not completely lose my own expectations/values.

Chenoa: I have had to let go of my U.S. concept of time in order to stay sane ?.  Nothing ever starts or ends on time here.  If I am told that an event will only take an hour (yeah right), I pack a heavy lunch, bring my phone charger and my Sudoku book because I already know what that REALLY means.

In spite of the challenges, I still find my work to be very rewarding. I love being able to help people with disability become more empowered to advocate for their rights and become better educated about their health. What has been the most rewarding experience so far?

Jane: There are too many rewarding experiences to list, but some of my top favorites are:

  • When local community members trust me with their personal information so I can provide them with support, maintain confidentiality, and connect them with appropriate resources.
  • Build strong relationships with my host sisters.
  • Help my niece learn how to read and write in English.
  • Taking in all the good, the bad, and the ugly in order to integrate into a community and become part of many people’s lives.

Chenoa: There are endless challenges in any Peace Corps country of service, but I would not trade this experience for the world!  I get to live in another country FOR FREE doing work that I LOVE—what can be better than that?  Although the HIV/AIDS work is important, the best times I have had have been spent just connecting with people as people.  You can find me dancing outside to South African music with my neighbors, watching WWE with my host brothers, or singing with a church member.  Those unquantifiable, quality times with loved ones are the moments I’ll never forget.

If someone told you ten years ago when you were in high school that ten years from now you would be living in Africa and serving in the Peace Corps, would you have believed that person?

Jane: Since high school, I’ve had dreams of going off to Peace Corps so I would have believed that person. Timing is everything and for me, I originally thought I’d go sooner in life rather than later, but now looking at the big picture in retrospect, now is the perfect time for me to be living my dream here in South Africa and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Chenoa: I have wanted to serve in the Peace Corps ever since I was 15 years old.  I’m almost 30 now so I am grateful to have had the chance to live out my dream.  However, after studying Spanish for almost a decade, studying abroad in Costa Rica and Mexico, being a Latin American Association volunteer, becoming a Zumba Instructor, and buying Selena and Shakira CDs, I JUST KNEW that Peace Corps was going to send me to Latin America.  Well, clearly, the joke is on me!

Now, if you had of told me that I would be serving at the same exact time as you and Jane, THEN I would have said you were crazy!

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