Play It Forward

21 Jul

The next group of Education Volunteers (SA28) arrived in South Africa in early July, and I am part of the team of Volunteer trainers to get them prepared for teaching South African kids in South African schools. In mid-June I wrapped up the second term of English teaching for my learners a week early so I could attend what Peace Corps calls the General Training Of Trainers (or GTOT). When that training was finished, I was shuttled to Pretoria where I had a little over 24 hours to spend before heading back to KwaZulu Natal. The following post recounts the little slice of serendipity that occurred there on the afternoon of Saturday, 22 June 2013.

“Hey, Erik, do you want a guitar?”

I wasn’t expecting this question, especially from Taura, whom I had just met. She was sitting outside at Khayalethu guest house/backpackers with about half a dozen others from her SA24 cohort. They were in the process of reconvening one last time in Pretoria for their Close of Service (COS) conference that was to start the next day. I was only there as part of my travel route back to my site after the GTOT sessions that were held that week outside of Polokwane, Limpopo. Within a matter of hours I would be on an overnight bus bound for KZN, ready to start my three weeks of time off from teaching.

In my head I answer, “Yes, of course – but do I want the particular guitar you’re about to offer me? And at what cost?” Out loud I muster up, “Um … maybe?”

It seems that the word had spread to her cohort that I play the instrument and that I might be a good candidate to take this one off her hands. She quickly explained to me that she wasn’t trying to sell it and that this guitar had some PCSA history behind it. It had been passed between different volunteers and she thought it would be good to continue the tradition. That alone was reason enough to at least look at it.

I followed her inside to fetch it. As we walked, she continued to give me all its pros and cons, just in the interest of full disclosure. From our conversation, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect before I saw it. She explained that it’s small and clearly not too expensive. It comes ready with a gig bag (a soft, zippered case), a strap, a tuner, some chord books, some picks and some extra strings. However, the strings currently on it really ought to be changed and overall it could use a little cleaning. Already I have a vision in my head of a student model guitar that doesn’t receive much love because it doesn’t get played too frequently.

We brought it back outside and set the case on the picnic table. The logo on the case was familiar, but when I unzipped it to reveal the guitar itself, I was absolutely floored.

Flashback to over a year ago. Like all the other SA26s, I was sorting out my personal belongings and preparing to depart for South Africa. One of my top priorities was figuring out how to best bring a guitar with me. I did a fair amount of comparison shopping and tried several travel-size guitars before settling on the “Little Martin”; a well constructed, Mexican-manufactured acoustic with decent sound and playability (and it wasn’t too expensive).

But then I had to actually pack everything I was to bring with me. To my dismay, after several attempts of configuring my luggage (with a lot of help from my sister, Sara), I couldn’t make it fit in a way that I felt confident it would arrive in South Africa in one piece. I decided not to bring it. I knew I would be able to buy something in country, and I did just that. While still in Pre-service Training (PST), I found a guitar at a mall that has been more than adequate for playing and singing … and even writing and recording some music at my site, too. So, I really don’t need another guitar.

But there it was: a Little Martin. Exactly what I had left behind in the states, from the gold logo on the gig bag right down to the style and color of the wood finish on the body, sitting before my very eyes on that picnic table.

Little Martin

Taura showed me the Sharpie-signed names on the back of the six previous custodians of what I feel is now truly a PCSA heirloom. I sat down and started tuning up its rusted strings.

Within a few minutes of strumming chords and plucking out melodies, I could see I was holding the attention of the group of volunteers in front of me. It seemed they wanted a show. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love an audience. I proceeded to put on a little impromptu performance fueled by requests for what I figure to have been around 45 minutes to an hour. Little by little, the audience got bigger as more and more of the 24s were arriving. In between songs, there were hugs and handshakes from the new arrivals, and when Howell showed up with his violin, a few of the jams became fiddle-infused.

I’m sure none of my performances were my most accurate renditions. I played and sang many of the songs I used to perform on a nearly weekly basis for over three years before accepting my invitation for Peace Corps, but I was feeling as rusty as the strings. I had fun, and I’m pretty sure the 24s did, too, especially when I got everyone to sing along with songs like Billie Jean and I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles). I even managed a half-baked version of Sweet Child O’ Mine. And what show like this would be complete without the obligatory Skynyrd?

My fellow 26, Diana, had been there for the handing off of the guitar, and asked that if I didn’t want it, would it be okay if she had it. Again, I don’t need another guitar, certainly not at my site … and certainly not one identical to a guitar waiting for me in America.

D wants to learn, and this will be an excellent instrument to learn on. I cleaned it up and replaced the rusty strings. I added my name, too, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s now hers to learn from and pass on. Hopefully she can pass it on to the next volunteer in a way as meaningful and fun as it was passed to me. And she can happily sign her name next to mine and all the PCVs who came before us who made this all possible:

  • Taura Jackson, SA24
  • Paula Priebe, SA21
  • Andrew Bernish, SA18
  • Erin Eskilsen, SA16
  • Joey Cardella, SA16
  • Dan Ond???, SA14 (Unfortunately, the signature is rubbing off!)


1 Comment

Posted by on 21 July 2013 in Events, Friends, Music, Training


One response to “Play It Forward

  1. Erik Hendel

    21 July 2013 at 9:48 PM

    For more fun regarding this guitar, watch this video I recorded yesterday:



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