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Miss Piccinini

As I pulled into Khula Village my eyes welled with tears. I don’t know if it was out of nervousness, happiness or a combination of both, but whatever the cause I couldn’t make them stop. It had been over a year since I lived in Khula and now that I was seconds away from arriving I tensed up. I grabbed the hand of my host brother, who fetched me from town, looking for reassurance, but to no avail. It wasn’t until I heard a child yell, “Miss Piccinini” at the top of her lungs that I knew I was home. The greetings didn’t stop there. Everywhere I walked kids and adults alike called my name. Many of my old students ran up to me in tears, smothering me with tight hugs, while uttering phrases like: “is it really you?” “I never thought I would see you again.” “Please don’t leave us this time.” My fears of being forgotten and feeling out of place were immediately dispelled.

Within a few days I was back to my “old life” of sleeping in my hut, bathing with a bucket, fetching water and washing my clothes by hand. I would be lying if I said it was an easy transition back. I had completely forgotten how difficult life was in the village. While living in Khula for my two years of Peace Corps I got used to things like carrying buckets of water and hand-washing my clothes, but after a year in America those commonplace chores of my past now seemed near impossible. For my first few days in the village I needed the assistance of my host brothers to carry my water buckets and my first batch of laundry ended not only with semi-clean clothes, but also with bloody hands. On top of that, the severe humidity and sand-filled roads had me longing for a shower! I often found myself thinking, “how did I do this for TWO years?” Well, the answer to that became clear when after a few days in Khula I had fully shed my American skin and was back to my village self!

These past few weeks back in the village I have embraced the days without electricity, the sound of chickens in the morning and frogs at night, and the numerous creatures who like to share my bathing area. I have remembered that cleanliness is only relative and even if I bathed in the morning it is okay that after my 20min walk to school, under the beating sun and through the deep sand, that I feel like a hot sticky mess. I have enjoyed the constant stream of visitors to my door and the taste of fresh avocados from the trees outside my hut. All of these simple things I took for granted when I lived in Khula now seemed so special.

Looking back on the time spend in the village so far I can say without reservation that I am exactly where I need to be right now and I feel so privileged to be able to return to my second home. During one of the leadership conferences I organized at the high school the guest speaker said, “One thing that God gave all of us equally was time. No matter who we are or where we live we all have 24hours in a day. What differs is what how much we accomplish in those 24hours.” I know that it is my days spent in Khula that I am making the most of my 24hours and the bonus is that I am loving every minute of it!

It has almost been a year since returning home from my two and a half years living and working abroad in Africa. Since the day I stepped foot in California I was eager to get back to Khula Village and to the people who became my community for two years. While preparing for this trip I was so nervous that once I arrived in South Africa I would feel strange and out of place as I have been away for quite some time. Luckily, my experience thus far as been quite the opposite. From the moment I stepped off the plane I felt as if I had never left. Within a couple of days I was back to my old routine of taking bush taxis, eating biltong, getting marriage proposals, drinking coke out of glass bottles, being starred at, being fed chicken feet and worms, hearing people constantly yell “umulungu” (white person) at me, and eating meals with my hands.

My first two stops in South Africa were to my friend, Charlie’s, site near Rustenburg and to Mokopane to visit my two host families from training. On my visit to Charlie’s site I rediscovered my talent for sleeping in completely cramped bush taxis and my love of polony (imagine a faker looking and tasting bologna). I then traveled north to visit my old host families who I stayed with during my 2-month Peace Corps training in January 2011. For dinner the first night my 16-year old host sister made spaghetti and meatballs as that was the one American meal I made for them years ago and she wanted to show me that not only had she not forgotten how to prepare it, but that she had perfected it! The younger ones of the family were eager to show off their newly acquired English skills and my host mother was keen on reintroducing me to corn as she is still convinced we don’t have it in America. After spending two lovely days with them I experienced arguably the most terrifying taxi ride of my life on my way back to Pretoria. Although quite sunny upon our departure from the village about one hour into the trip we hit a huge rain storm. The rain pounded down on the rickety taxi, the highway seemed more like a swimming pool than a road, the windshield wipers somehow managed to break and the driver could not find any way to defog the windshield. The scariest part of all was that the driver kept telling me how nervous he was. Needless to say, I was very glad when we finally made it to Pretoria safely.

After that taxi ride I was very ready to leave the north and travel down to Khula Village. I will head down to KwaZulu Natal this weekend to spend a few weeks in Khula Village, the place that was my home for two wonderful years! I am so eager to embrace each member of my host family, sleep in my hut, bathe with a bucket, trudge through deep sand, listen to the sound of melodic birds waking me up before sunrise, get caught up on the latest Zulu house music trends and hear children yell “Miss Piccinini” everywhere I go. Although I left America with the ambitious goal of updating my projects I must not forget the concept of “Africa time” and that things will probably move a lot slower than I would like. With that said, I plan to go in with an open mind and whether I accomplish everything I set out to do or not that isn’t important. The most important thing is just my presence in the village as a reminder to everyone that although I no longer live in Khula I have not forgotten them. The projects I completed, the friends I made and relationships I formed truly shaped the person I am today and I thank them.

Now off to Zululand!

By: Langeni Mhlongo
Written for: Miss Piccinini

It kept me open-minded and conscious
My direction to sophistication
It kept my thoughts away from violence
Held my hand like a sister and a friend

The chapter of my life: “My Heart”
I will always keep you in my heart until the end of time

You certainly could not have come at a better time
You are my black and white compass to life

You showed me things I was to blind to see
You gave me life I was to scared to live

Forgive me if I lose direction
What would I be without you
You could have left at a better time
You gave me direction for you are my black and white compass to life

You took us east for establishment
You look us south for sophistication
You then took us west for wisdom
And at last north for nurturing

Thank you, my black and white compass to life

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This is a poem that Langeni, an 11th grader and participant in my youth empowerment program, wrote for my farewell celebration in Khula Village. His intelligence and wisdom not only give me hope for his future, but also for the future of South African youth.

Beauty In Simplicity

With Christmas soon approaching I asked my host brother, Sanele, if he was excited for the holiday. His words to me were: “Danielle, this isn’t America; Santa doesn’t come to South Africa.” Instead of show him how depressing his words were to me I awkwardly laughed as the “right” words just seemed to escape me.  Although technically Sanele was right, there was something about Christmas in the village that was far more significant than presents from Santa Claus.  

On Christmas morning I was awoken at 6am by the sound of knocking on my door.  Although I did not want to get out of bed I sleepily opened the door to find two of my students from my Boys’ Club bearing gifts of fresh mangoes from their trees and sweets from the little village shop.  I welcomed them into my home and shared some of the  Christmas sweets my family had sent me–no match for the generosity they had shown me. At that moment I thought to myself that this could easily be the most special Christmas morning I ever have.

After the boys left I was eager to get Christmas started! I spent the rest of the morning baking with the children of my host family, which has come to be a Christmas tradition as this was our second Christmas together.  The kids started asking me long before Christmas day if we would be baking cakes like last year! So in the same fashion as the year before my tiny hut was quickly transformed into a bakery with kids mixing batter, rolling out dough and decorating cookies! The smiles on the children’s faces made finding sprinkles inside my bed that night totally worth it!  

After completing Christmas morning in my hut I ventured out to pay a couple visits to people around the village.  The first visit was to one of my students from Girls’ Club, Slindokuhle, who has been begging me to come meet her mom for awhile now.  So I met her at the village carwash (something I will never understand as my village hasn’t had water in two years) and we made the trek to her home.  When I arrived at her house I was initially taken aback by her very humble two-room home made of wood planks that housed herself, her mother and her two siblings.  Yes, this simple structure is a common one in the village, but when I work with my students at school or they visit me at home I somehow forget the poverty that they go home to every night and that realization is never an easy one.  These thoughts were quickly taken out of my mind the moment I was ushered into the “sitting room” to enjoy biscuits and apple soda with the mother, uncle, grandmother and children.  We sat around the table watching old recordings of Celine Dion and Kenny G music videos on their tiny television.  (Celine Dion and Kenny G are some of the most popular singers in my village and although I will never understand it I try to embrace it!) During our time together the family explained to me how much they love Christmas because they get to be together and enjoy one another. As I left they couldn’t stop thanking me for spending my Christmas with them and how honored they were to be with me when in reality I was the lucky one to have shared the holiday with them. 

Still full from my biscuits and apple soda I headed over to my friend Jabu’s house to share a Christmas meal.  Jabu is a cook for the orphans at the HIV/AIDS organization in my village and was one of my very first friends here! When I arrived at her home her family, just like that of Slindokuhle’s, was gathered around the TV, but in this case they were watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie as they always seem to be on TV.  (My students always like to tell me they think it’s so funny that Arnold is the “chief” of my village of California!) So as we sat around the TV I was fed the most glorious Zulu meal complete with chicken and beef, rice and maize meal as well as various side dishes.  Zulu people take great pride in spoiling their guests and I was for sure spoiled in the sense as I was so full that I could hardly walk home! During our meal and TV watching we discussed my upcoming departure from the village and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.  Jabu put it perfectly when she said, “when you first arrived we thought it was crazy that you would be here for two years without your family and now nobody can believe those two years are almost over.”

This Christmas was one that I will never forget as it taught me that true beauty lies in simplicity.  Whether it be receiving a gift of mangoes, baking cookies in a hut, watching old Celine Dion music videos or eating a large meal with friends, simple beauty is present in all of it.  

Now I have an answer for my host brother, Sanele: “you are right; the famous Santa in a red suit does not come to South Africa because he only has clothes for winter, but the true meaning of Christmas is present all around you.  It can be seen in the joy of a family sharing a meal or the smiles of children walking down the road eating fresh mangoes. Hidden in the small things we take for granted is the simple beauty that makes Christmas so special”  

Happy New Year to you and may your eyes be opened to the simple beauty that is present all around you. 

 

 

 

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What do you get when you take 14 7th grade girls from Khula Village to St Lucia?….a whole lot of fun!! Earlier this month I kicked off my camp initiative by taking some of my girls from the Ubuhle-Bemvelo Girls’ Club to St. Lucia for a three-day camp. Those three days were some of the best days of my Peace Corps service to date! The camp was packed with fun activities and various learning sessions for the girls. The excitement began as the infamous “green taxi” picked us up from my house to take us to St. Lucia. The entire ride the girls were dancing and singing to the booming house music. Upon arrival at the backpackers (youth hostel) in St. Lucia I thought the girls were going to die of excitement as each one ran up and thanked me for taking them to “the most beautiful hotel they had ever seen.” The highlight of the accommodation for everyone were the hot showers as not only were these the first showers for most of the girls, but they couldn’t believe that hot water came out of the showers with just the twist of a nozzle! After getting the lay of the land the girls and I headed over to Fur Elise Restaurant to enjoy their swimming pool and waterslide. Granted the pool is pretty brown and the slide is rather slow, but this particular “St. Lucia attraction” is #1 on every Khula child’s wish list. This was no exception for my girls as they refused to leave the pool until it was dark! It didn’t matter that it was beginning to rain or that they hadn’t eaten all day; to them they were at the coolest place in the world and they didn’t want their time there to end! That first evening one of the peer mentors from the village high school, Sne, came and did a lovely presentation for the campers on what it means to be a Zulu woman. The presentation was very special for the girls as they were extremely impressed with how much Sne had accomplished in her life all while being an orphan. This struck a cord with a number of the campers as being an orphan in Khula is all to common and hearing Sne’s success story provided them with much inspiration. That night I sang my campers to sleep as they snuggled into their bunks full of anticipation for the following day.

The second day of the camp was even more fun-filled than the first! The planned morning activity was tie-dying camp shirts, but of course the graphics I had painted on the day before came off the moment the shirts touched dye as the fabric paint apparently wasn’t waterproof (only South Africa would have fabric paint that isn’t waterproof!!) so I quickly stopped the activity to save the shirts. The rest of the day was absolutely fantastic! In the morning we went to the Crocodile Centre located along the estuary where the campers were given a fabulous presentation on the local ecosystems as well as the wildlife that populates the estuary. The girls even had a chance to hold a baby crocodile! The fun didn’t stop there as immediately after the Crocodile Centre we headed down to the beach for some fun in the waves and a delicious braai (South African BBQ) prepared by my host brothers. Watching the girls play in the water and enjoy their meat feast was so wonderful. These are girls who have more responsibility in their homes than I could have ever imagined at their age and for the first time in their lives they were getting the chance to just be kids!

That evening after some long hot showers the girls participated in an wonderful session by African Impact, the local voluntourist organization in St Lucia. The volunteers led the campers in acting, movement and musical activities as a way to show the importance of self-confidence and self-expression. If that wasn’t enough for one day the night session was quite memorable as we did a little gender role swapping through the “Ask A Boy” session. Since in Zulu culture it is the “woman’s job” to take care of a man I thought it would be fun to show the girls that gender roles are interchangeable. The South African constitution so clearly states that men and women are equal so why not show them what equality looks like! So for dinner that night I had four guys from my host family as surprise guests to dinner, but instead of being served by the girls they were the ones doing the serving. The girls could not get over how strange the situation was yet quickly began to feel more comfortable as the guys showed that what they were doing was perfectly normal. That’s what two years of living with an American woman has done to my host brothers! That night the guys led the “Ask A Boy” session and literally had each girl at the edge of her seat during the whole thing. Before the session began I had the girls write down the questions they’ve “always wanted to ask a boy” on slips of paper so that they wouldn’t feel embarrassed asking the boys the questions directly. My host brothers then took the box of papers and answered each question much to the girls enjoyment. I think this session was equally rewarding for the facilitators as it was for the campers as they were able to tell the girls things that most Zulu men never feel comfortable saying, but would like to say to girls in their community. Since the girls were all wound-up from the session with the guys I decided to add to the madness with some South African style s’mores with flavored marshmallows, marie biscuits and Cadbury chocolate. The girls could not get over how funny it was to “braai marshmallows” as they’ve never done such a crazy thing before, but the moment they tasted their first s’more I couldn’t get them away from the campfire! From morning to night it was constant fun so I thought the girls would be exhausted, but who was I kidding? They had so much energy that they even managed to lock themselves out of one of the bedrooms and then break and door handle…nothing like a little extra excitement!

The next morning was the beginning of the final day of camp. After a delicious breakfast I led the campers in a teambuilding session complete with silly games and songs to bring up the energy after a fun-filled evening. Then I presented a lesson on stress management as this is a huge issue in the community today with youth suicides being all to common. The girls did excellent skits to show stressful situations they frequently find themselves in as well as the constructive solutions they would use to rid themselves of the stress. The acting skills of Zulu children never fail to amaze me! During the entire camp I had the girls keep journals as a learning tool to be used as a way to relieve stress outside of the camp setting. After all the learning was concluded I had one final surprise for the girls up my sleeve….a boat cruise along the estuary to see the hippos and crocodiles that inhabit the water! This adventure was extremely special to the girls as many have dreamed of being on one of the boats that they so frequently see the white tourists enjoying! This outing as well as the ones to the Crocodile Centre, pool and beach were things they will never forget as even though these amazing places are so near to their homes the majority of people in my community lack the means to ever visit them.

That evening as the taxi pulled into Khula Village the girls were yelling out the windows with excitement bragging to everyone on the road about their special camp experience. When we finally reached my home the girls all followed me to my door begging me to let them sleepover so that the fun wouldn’t end. Unfortunately, my tiny hut is a little small for 15 people to sleep in, but their enthusiasm was a true indicator to me of how much the camp meant to them. As they exited my gate to go home with huge smiles across their faces and a spring in their steps I knew that the camp was something that they would never forget. For three short days these 14 girls had the opportunity to step away from their typical lives and focus on being kids, something all to rare to a village child.

This camp was made possible thanks to the generosity of donations from family and friends in America. This camp was truly life changing for the 14 girls who had the opportunity to participate in it. I look forward to doing another camp like this for a group of 20 boys in November. Yay for Youth Empowerment!

My “Royal” Parents

A little over a month has passed since my parents’ trip to South Africa and although they are gone the impact of their visit remains strong. Not a day goes by that someone in my village doesn’t ask me when my parents are coming back as of course no one has any idea how far America is from South Africa!

Although there were many memorable things about their trip it was their experience in Khula Village that really stood out. From the moment my parents’ pulled into Khula on a bush taxi they seemed to fit right in! My tiny hut quickly became home to the three of us. My dad and my dog, Bruni, bonded as they slept together on the floor and both my mom and dad immediately mastered using a pit latrine and bucket bathing. After just a few hours in the village my parents were sporting traditional Zulu attire as well as showing off their skills as Zulu dancers.

The next day was the real treat as we planned to visit the primary school and the community organization where I had been working since last year. As we trekked through the sand to get to school I noticed that many students were hanging out around the school, but not in class. When I asked one of the boys why the students weren’t in class he said, “Miss Piccinini, we are waiting for you guys.” Of course I thought he was pulling my leg, but sure enough when we got to school a huge formal function had been planned to honor my parents. My mom and dad processed in though a tunnel of singing children and were led to the front of the school where the remaining students were eagerly awaiting their arrival. I’ve never seen the students so excited! The event continued in a large tent with speeches and performances to honor “Mr. and Mrs. Piccinini.” The event could have not been more perfect as the learners and staff were truly excited to have them there and had prepared many special things for the day. One of my personal favorite parts of the program was a poetry reading by one of the 7th Grade Boys where he recited a poem which began, “Miss Piccinini from the country of California in the village of America.” Other highlights from the program were the traditional song and dance routines done by the students and the speech from the principal where he compared my parents to royalty; “we have not had visitors this important since Prince Charles!” Now that was quite the statement! The event ended perfectly with the entire student body singing the South African national anthem in beautiful harmony. The teachers put it best when they said, “this is the day we will never forget!”

Later that day we ventured to my community-based organization where my parents distributed teddy bears to each of the orphans at the centre. Each of the children’s faces lit-up as they were presented with their own teddy bear. For some of them this was the first toy they ever personally owned. It was funny to watch how each child played with his/her bear; the play ranged from perpetual hugging to staging fights with their friends’ bears. As the children were happily playing with their new toys my parents and I set-up tables filled with used clothing they had brought from America for the staff members of the organization. Even though we were all a little concerned about what the reaction would be to this we were quickly put at ease when all the staff started signing and dancing with joy!

It’s amazing how things that seem so small to us have the potential of making a huge impact on the lives of others. It only took a visit to the school to warrant a huge celebration, a teddy bear to render extreme joy in the orphans’ faces and used clothing to create a desire to sing and dance in praise.

Although my parents’ time in Khula Village was limited the lives they touched and the impact they made on the community are far greater than we could ever imagine.

I’ve always thought that I loved my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in my rural South African village, but I was never completely convinced of this until my trip to America.

With a year and a half of life in a village behind my belt I felt pretty confident in myself as a volunteer and in my impact on the community. Whenever anyone would ask me about my life in South Africa I would say with confidence that I loved my time here because I genuinely did…or so I thought. I mean how could I really know I truly loved it until I took a step back to gain some perspective? I had the opportunity to gain that much needed perspective during my visit to America.

When I was preparing for my trip home many volunteers warned me about feelings I might have upon my return to “the land of plenty.” So I boarded the plane with nerves of culture shock, the potential that I may not relate to my family or friends anymore and the possibility that I might not want to come back to South Africa. Luckily for me, the moment I arrived in America I was thrown back into my “old” life wearing a fancy dress, heels and make-up (things I haven’t worn in almost 2 years) for my brother’s graduation. I didn’t even have time to think about the adjustment as it was forced the moment I got off the plane.

This made the initial step back into American life much easier than expected as being my “American” self couldn’t be any more different than my “South African” self. So a few days went by and all was “normal.” Then little things started to set me off like breaking down in tears upon seeing a man begging on the street or needing to pull over every so often to buy caffeine because driving in traffic is draining or the inability to sleep because the excess clothes in my closet stressed me out. Then there was the fact that I missed about every pop culture reference, but I guess that’s to be expected when I live in a hut!

My biggest “light bulb” moment was when I was in Target and Costco at the end of my stay at home. I mean Costco and Target are the definition of excess, but are places that volunteers dream of when sitting in our little huts, but now I was experiencing it through different eyes. While walking in the clothing section of Costco, getting completely distracted by all the stimuli, my mom said to me, “what things could your host family use?” I thought about it for a second and then realized, “what things couldn’t they use!” With that realization I told my mom it was time to leave because I was afraid I might break down. That singular moment had a huge unexpected impact on me.

Up until that point in my South African Peace Corps service I was very aware of the great need for “development,“ but I was pretty blind to the raw poverty that was right before my eyes. Having immediately transferred from Niger, the poorest country in the world, South Africa didn’t even seem to compare. It wasn’t until I took a step outside of it that I realized how wrong I had been. Maybe the Zulu people in my village don’t initially seem as poor as the rural villagers in Niger, but take away all the “show” and the reality is not a pretty one.

Because of South Africa’s unique history rural South Africans have always taken great pride in presenting themselves with dignity. Although a person may only have 2 sets of clothing you can bet that those clothes are washed and ironed each day so that he/she always looks his/her best. Then there is the style of homes. With the heavily white South African influence many Zulus have transitioned from traditional huts to what look like typical western homes on the outside, but a step inside would show something a little different: unfinished ceilings, broken furniture and numerous people sharing a single bed. These facts all go completely unnoticed to the typical visitor and even apparently to someone like me who prided myself on my integration in my village. It wasn’t until that moment in Costco that I had clarity on the reality of village life.

With that realization in the back of my head and the burning desire to get back to work I boarded the plane back to South Africa. Now after being back for about a month the perspective I gained during my trip to America has been the driving force behind my work. I have eight more months to continue making as large of an impact on my community as possible and I am dedicated to doing just that!

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