I stayed up far too late working on this, so enjoy the fruit of my labor. 🙂
When we touched down in Jo’burg (for the uninitiated, this is a very common nickname for Johannesburg), there was still a hint of daylight. Due to the six-hour time difference from Eastern Time, it was already evening on Thursday, 12 July. But we didn’t have time to enjoy that, because we quickly found ourselves rounding up luggage and standing in line to get our passports and visas checked out. When everyone made it through, we were greeted by some more new friends, including some of the PC-SA big wigs and a couple of volunteers named Chad and Jonelle. They and the drivers assisted us to our bus and the loading of the luggage onto the truck.
On the way to the training site, I remember thinking as we drove on a divided highway in the dark that the terrain didn’t seem too different from central Florida (other than the fact that we were on the wrong side of the freeway). We stopped at a truck-stop of sorts. Some of us – actually just those of us who had some SA currency (Rand), which trades at roughly 1/8th of the USD – bought some snacks (not me). Others of us used the restrooms (me). From then on, the view outside was very dark, and the roads much more narrow. A few hours later, we pulled into an Education College in the Mpumalanga province of SA, which was our main hub of Pre-Service Training (PST), and became known to all of the PCTs as M-hub.
As an aside, you may have noticed more and more abbreviations and acronyms popping up in this tale. Don’t worry, it bothers me, too. Try explaining to a non-native English speaker what M-hub means. It is so much easier to just say “I’ll be at the college today.” And how redundant is it to include “PC” in ANY of these abbreviations? We know what organization we joined. I’m fine with simply saying I’m a “trainee,” but apparently that isn’t good enough. I am literally a PCT going through PST who meets fellow PCTs at the M-hub. We are far from finished with the abbreviations; I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and I am sure there are plenty more I haven’t learned yet.
Back to our arrival … there were a bunch of young-ish looking South Africans (Host Country Nationals, as native folks are often referred to, at least by PC) singing to us in a language (or perhaps languages) that we didn’t understand. They started before the busses were even parked. We got off the busses and stood in a big group, and watched as they performed. It was equal parts exhilarating and awkward. They were really good. We were really tired. Every once in a while there would be words we could understand like “Peace Corps.” We didn’t know if we should clap our hands in time, attempt to sing along, or just stand there like deer in headlights. Most of us went for the third option.
Weeks later I was reminded of a particular song they sang that was entirely in English. That shows you how out of it I was.
It turns out that the majority of these folks were our Language and Culture Facilitators (you guessed it: LCFs). They weren’t supposed to speak to us in English for the first couple weeks of training, though we figured out later that they all can speak English well. It is supposed to immerse us to help us learn the local language. But I’m not sure how well that works when not all of the PCTs are learning the same language. To be honest, I would not have been able to tell you if they were speaking different languages from each other or not. It was all Greek to me. But more on language learning later.
We unloaded all the luggage into one room. This took more time than it seems like it should have. But all (or almost all) of us had three pieces of luggage each. The expectation is that at least one of your bags is your “non-essentials” bag that you don’t have access to throughout training. But, for the time being, we were lugging those, too.
We then regrouped to get the lowdown on sleeping arrangements and expectations for the next day. We gathered up our luggage (again) and found our rooms in the mostly vacant dorms of the college. This time I had two roommates: John and Will. The male trainees (who were outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 by women) were sent off to a separate building than the females. Married couples (of which we have two) slept on the first floor of the ladies’ dorm. By the way, each building is referred to as a block; this seems to be a SA thing (or perhaps Afrikaans or British). The guys’ block has three doors, but only one was unlocked. Of course it was the door that was the least convenient to the rest of the blocks in the college that we were actually using.
In our room were four beds. Since there were only three in our room, one of those beds was used for storage … and mostly storage of my stuff, to be honest. Each of the beds we used had a simple – yet very workable – foam mattress with a sheet, blanket, pillow, and very thick comforter.
The college overall seems a bit neglected. Many of the buildings seem to be unused other than by PC. (I know there are classes there, but it seems far from a bustling hive of educational activity.) There is a high brick wall that seems to divide the college into two sections, with a big steel gate to go between the two halves of the campus. Naturally, the side we mainly used is the side in need of more attention. Falling apart sidewalks, ill kept landscaping, and broken windows are the norm. None of the buildings appear to have heat. (Thus, the very thick comforter is a necessity; keep in mind that this was the middle of winter for the Southern Hemisphere.)
The bathrooms in the dorms are pretty good, but they could also use some basic maintenance. Sinks with both cold and hot water are scarce. Shower curtains are more like nets that water passes right through. Next to each bathroom is a laundry room with two large basins and three ironing boards for doing all your laundry. (No washers or dryers, of course; hang your clothes to dry on the lines outside.) An iron would have come in handy if anyone had one.
On the other hand, peacocks and ostriches can be found running around the grounds throughout the mornings, and the college is situated high enough on a hill that you can view the neighborhoods down in the valley. And for the most part, it felt and looked as if we were somewhere on the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ in the winter. The ground looked very similar, the plants looked very similar, and the weather for winter (warm days and chilly nights) is just like that of the Sonoran Desert.
We were very secure there, considering all the fences and security guards 24-7. There is an official looking (and decently kept) track and field with a large concrete grandstand and bleacher sections – local youth soccer teams came to play there while we were residents. Sunsets are pretty and the stars in the southern hemisphere are fantastic, especially during a new moon. And, running water and flush toilets are quite luxurious compared to the conditions in the surrounding villages, as we all found out later.
So, for over one week, this was our home.
Within the first couple of days we had the opportunity to reassess the contents of our non-essential bags, before having to relinquish them. I am happy to report that I decided to throw the dice and hold on to my laptop. (It turns out that – for me – having a computer IS essential, and in no way did I ever feel like it was ripe for theft.) My good camera I thought best to send off as a non-essential item. That may have been a mistake, but I was still able to take photos with my cell phone. Unfortunately, the Verizon Wireless Android I have doesn’t actually work as a phone in SA, but it is still handy as a camera, video recorder, voice recorder, MP3 player, and flashlight (or “torch” as they are called in SA – all the English here is very British).
Also within the first couple of days, we all seemed to form particular cliques. Not on purpose; I think these things just happen. It isn’t as if the cliques compete with each other or have any ill will towards each other. (That is, it isn’t like high school.) We all just ended up hanging around the same little groups of people, especially in our free time or during meals.
My free time clique included me, Vanessa and Laura. Vanessa and I are nearly the same age and Laura seems like she should be our age (even though she is in her early 20s and looks even younger). The free time we had at the college was mostly in the evenings and we filled it by playing Quidler and/or just talking. But we could be ourselves and decompress from the sensory overload that we were enduring.
Also because of these cliques, when we were all in the actual training sessions, more often than not everyone would end up sitting in roughly the same place in the room. Like some kind of psychology experiment, we were proving how humans are creatures of habit. So much so with me, Laura and Vanessa, that later on in training, Ted (who was always sitting almost directly across from us) decided that the three of us looked like a small family: Vanessa and I being the parents, and Laura our daughter. Of course, this family notion stuck, and was even extended to include Briana and Brandon as the aunt and uncle, since they would almost always be sitting next to us. But at meal time, I usually made it a point to move around and mingle more.
Which brings me to food. Of the ingredients in the food we were introduced to at the college, none were particularly exotic. However, their preparation at times was uncommon to the Americans, like cheese and butter sandwiches on white bread, or this interesting concoction called “pap” (pronounced like “pop” – and the English word they use for it is porridge). It is a maize-meal based food that is essentially a less moist version of grits. It is very common across SA, but can differ in its preparation depending on the region.
Having a strong British influence, the South Africans that planned and conducted our training were always good about leaving time for us to “take tea” every day between breakfast and lunch. This was usually just your choice of tea or instant coffee with exceptionally dry cookies (“biscuits,” if you prefer). Sometimes they had small sandwiches, like the aforementioned cheese and butter on white bread. We were never in danger of going hungry.
What we learned while we were living at the college is a bit of a blur. We started getting inoculations and vaccines. We started getting scared by the safety and security coordinator about crime, violence, public transportation issues, sexual assault, etc. We started to hear about volunteer diversity. We started getting stuff, like our own medical kit and our own mosquito net. We started to get interviewed individually about our health backgrounds and where we might be best placed in the country. And we started learning important education, culture and language lessons.
Well, for language at this point we were mostly given standard greetings in five of the eleven official SA languages: IsiZulu, IsiNdebele, SiSwati, Afrikaans, and Xitsonga.
It was originally assumed that any of us may be assigned any of these languages, except for Afrikaans. Afrikaans greetings are taught because it is quite common in the country and many of the blacks were taught this in school during apartheid. As a matter of fact, we were told that there is an assumption on the part of older blacks (especially since most of the PCTs are white) that we will know how to speak it. So we learned how to say “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “good night.” Then we learned how to say “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks.” Then we learned how to say “I don’t speak Afrikaans.”
I found out recently that Xitsonga was cut from the list of possibilities because there were no suitable sites to send any of us in the regions that speak that language. So, we were down to three possibilities, and most of us got assigned IsiZulu.
The language assignments were a pretty big deal and they took place on Wednesday, 18 July. Not only did we find out what language we were to learn, but we were broken into groups of about four to six trainees and found out which LCF was assigned to our group. Additionally, the people comprising a group would most likely be located in close proximity to each other when we got assigned our permanent sites. So you’ll want to know them pretty well and you’ll want them to be people you get along with fairly easily.
Brandon, Katrina, Michael and I were assigned to a group to study IsiZulu, with Minky assigned as our LCF. I’m not sure how long it took, but within a very short amount of time most in our group were referring to us as “Team Awesome.”
Team Awesome makes me feel a little old, and in more than one way. For starters, I’m not crazy about the name. It sounds more appropriate coming from the mouth of someone in their early 20s than it does from me. Secondly, I make many jokes and/or references that none of them get. For example, I don’t expect Minky (being a black South African) to get references from Family Ties, but the fact that Family Ties was cancelled before anyone else on the team was born makes me look ancient. As a matter of fact, at one point I referred to myself as the Dennis Miller of the team because my references are too obscure for all of them. Fittingly, none of them knew who Dennis Miller is (and they were more than happy to tell me so).
Minky was instantly like our mom. She had held the position of LCF before, so she knows well how to navigate the Peace Corps training universe. And we couldn’t ask for someone who was more dedicated to our team. She can be sassy, but she knows her stuff so well that she is entitled to some sass. She is especially good at knowing how to focus on the important stuff we needed to learn. And, she is an example of how Peace Corps can have a positive influence – even just in training – as we were having daily cultural exchanges. Even when we weren’t trying, cultural exchanges were happening because we were all committed to communicating with each other. It is simple, but effective.
And overall, Team Awesome was a really good team to be on. They are all bright, highly motivated, and way better at learning a second language than I am. They are the type of people who I think most Americans picture when they think of Peace Corps volunteers. I appreciate them. Even though PST is over, we’re still a team. And most of the time I do feel like I’m in their same age group.