America Gave Me To You
It was about 7:00 on a Friday evening. Under normal circumstances, this would be my usual happy hour, but these were anything but normal circumstances. The rain pounding down on my tin roof sounded like a thousand children jumping up and down, stomping their feet. The gusting wind had long since knocked out the electricity in the village, and the strong drafts that crept in my room through the space between the floor and the haphazardly hung door made lighting a candle pointless. I could not go out and nobody was going to come in. It was just me, myself, and I until daylight, which would not be for another 10 hours. So I lay there, on my back, teary-eyed and depressed, contemplating all of the decisions that had taken me from a Friday evening of bright lights in the big city to blackouts and broken spirits in a little South African village.
How had I gotten here? The Africa part is easy. As long as I have had career goals, living and working in Africa has been a part of them. I wrote anti-apartheid rap songs in high school, interned with an Africa advocacy group, and even shook Nelson Mandela’s hand at a reception during my junior year of college. My first trip to the continent came via the U.S. State Department when I served as a foreign service intern at the U.S. embassy in Ghana. Though this experience was designed to introduce me to the wonderful life of a foreign service officer, it actually turned into a recruitment session for serving in the Peace Corps. I met Peace Corps Volunteers my own age in Ghana who were having a blast. Not the same kind of fun I was having, of course, working in an air-conditioned office with complimentary maid service and a driver at my beck and call. No, their joy came from sharing themselves with people and having those people reciprocate, living and working in a community, communicating in a new language. Once learning about the Peace Corps life, I only had two thoughts: Why hadn’t I heard about this sooner? And: Where could I sign up?
That year, President Mandela invited the Peace Corps to his country and asked for a Volunteer group that truly reflected the diversity of America. In 1997, the Peace Corps delivered the first group of Volunteers to South Africa and I was among them.
The assignment for this first group was in elementary school education, serving in South Africa’s northern province as liaisons, advisors, trainers, and community resource persons for teachers there. The goal was to help implement a new national education curriculum that of-fered parity among people and would replace the current curriculum, which was based on ethnicity, race, and color.
Peace Corps training was tough at times. We were strangers brought together by outside forces. We had lived in our own insular worlds and communities in the States, but in training together every day from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., we constructed a new community and our own support group. We literally grew up with one another as we re-learned how to talk, eat, and bathe in a foreign world. In essence, we were born again, born South African. Our training staff and host families were like parents, and we were eager for their guidance. I embraced the surname of my host family, Myakayka, a symbolic expression of their making me a part of their family.
I enjoyed language training and took pride in learning an African language, though it came with some frustration. After destroying one phrase or another in Northern Sotho, I would inevitably be drawn into the same questions.
“Where are you from?” Which really meant: “You’re butchering my language so that tells me you’re not South African, so what African country are you from?”
“I’m from the States,” I’d reply.
“No, I mean where are you really from?”
“From the States,” I’d say again, this time more emphatically.
Then came looks of confusion and annoyance. Why, they wondered, would I deny my heritage and language? Surely I was African. They would try a new tack.
“Well, where are your parents from?”
Having to prove I was not African always seemed humorous to me. And when the truth was finally accepted, my questioner, without fail, had a million-and-one other questions and they all started with, “Do you know…?”
“Do you know Michael Jackson?”
“Do you know R. Kelly?”
“Do you know Whitney Houston?”
“Do you know Michael Jordan?”
And on and on it went. They’d ask about any African American they had ever heard of and were quite perplexed and disappointed at my answers, which were invariably “No.”
These conversations of heritage and where I came from often led to discussions about slavery and the number of people of African descent in the United States. As I gave impromptu history lessons, I always mentioned the similarities I saw between South Africa and the United States and the struggle for racial equality. Exactly 40 years after Brown vs. Board of Education struck down “separate but equal” in the United States, apartheid was struck down with the first national multi-ethnic democratic election in South Africa’s history. I would explain that slavery in America was followed by a reconstruction period and the civil rights movement. I would tell them how privileged I felt to play some small part in South Africa’s civil rights movement as it transitioned into a democracy.
The whole concept of volunteering and traveling to another country to do so did not make sense to many people I encountered. Unless, of course, I were rich. And, if I were rich, I must have brought something to give away.
“What did you bring us from America?”
“America gave me to you,” I would say, feeling very proud. After all, I was a free gift to South Africa.
“Well, why didn’t America want you?”
My abilities and experience were constantly questioned. In time I would learn to respond. But on this day, so recently out of training, I did not have an answer. I just stood there, blank-faced, feeling inadequate and embarrassed.
After the 12-week pre-service training period and the immersion of eating and breathing all things South African, I felt ready to take up my Volunteer post. Coming to live in South Africa had been a dream come true, and training had only strengthened my enthusiasm. I did not feel as though I could save the world, but improving education in the small village of Phokoane I could handle. I knew that success would begin with trust, and before I could accomplish anything, the community had to feel as though they could trust me. These were people who had never been told what they could do, what they could accomplish; it had always been what they could not do, where they could not live, and what they could not teach.
But my resolve would be sorely tested in the ensuing weeks. I would soon learn that training is one thing and real life another. I grew to understand that life’s lessons cannot be simulated, but learned only by firsthand experience.
I was announced to my Phokoane community in the spirit of Paul Revere. The white SUV with the Peace Corps logo prominently displayed on the door pulled through the gates of the school, going as slowly as possible to avoid the little boys running alongside and in front, shouting: “The American is coming! The American is coming!” When the vehicle stopped, to everyone’s surprise, out I hopped: big smile, dark skin, and miniature dreadlocks. They peered around me, over me and, if it had been possible, through me, back into the vehicle, searching for an additional passenger. It was obvious by the looks on many of their faces, that I was not the “American” they expected. As I went from person to person, meeting, greeting, and shaking hands, I could overhear grumblings about having wanted a “real American.” I knew from that moment on, if I did nothing else in my two years, that just by being there, I would change their thoughts about what a “real American” was.
There would come a time of celebration. But, on this Friday night, my stateside party night, the only party I was having was one of pity, depressed and oblivious to the joys and successes that would come. Training had been comforting and calming, but now I was in the storm, figuratively and literally. With the rain pounding down on my tin roof, wind gusting in under my door, and tears on my cheeks, my only thoughts were: Why am I here? And: Will it get any easier?
Over the next two years, I could answer many times, Yes!
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