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Alexis F.

“It’s a good day when you teach a class of learners a new vocabulary word but it’s an even better day if you get to sit with your host mom under the mango tree, eating fresh mangoes and just enjoying each other’s company.”

Alexis F Headshot

1. What got you interested in the Peace Corps?

I cannot name an exact moment when I decided that I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I have always felt an invisible tether to the Peace Corps and experiences like it. I went to university to become a teacher and while this is a teaching experience, I was truly craving to be a part of something bigger than myself and to have a sense of purpose other than my career. Since being in country, I continue to be excited about the Peace Corps because of the community of people I have around me. South Africans are friendly by nature but the love, acceptance, and pure enthusiasm I have received from my host family, friends, and school community have been nothing shy of overwhelming, in the best way.

2. What projects are you working on?

I am part of the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) program, so I am working at a primary school teaching learners from grades R-4 English and reading.

In South Africa, primary school education is broken into two phases, the foundation phase (grades R-3) and the intermediate phase (grades 4-7). In the foundation phase, where I primarily work, the language of instruction is your home language, which for my school, is Setswana. English is taught once a day. In the intermediate phase, the language of instruction switches to English and the home language becomes a once-a-day subject. English remains the language of instruction through high school and university, and continues into the professional work environment.

The goal of our project is to assist learners in the foundation phase with language acquisition, both written and verbal, so that they can move into the next phase smoothly. To reach this goal, I co-teach English as a First Additional Language (EFAL) for Grades 1-4 as well as teaching remedial reading and English classes in smaller groups of eight.

Additionally, I co-facilitate a youth empowerment and development program called Grassroot Soccer. The primary goal of this program is to educate youths about HIV/AIDS, along with other topics regarding personal health, leadership, and interpersonal relationships.

Children around a table reading.
Students engaged in a reading exercise.

3. What strategies have you used to integrate into your community?

As my cohort of five was on the bus about to depart for permanent sites the day after swearing-in, one of the Peace Corps Response Volunteers jumped on to give us advice. He said, “Buy your eggs one at a time and sit with everybody.” Then he hopped off and waved goodbye. The idea was to find somebody selling eggs, buy one, and have a conversation with them. Then, continue down the road to find the next egg seller, buy another, and have a conversation with them, and so on. The point is to find opportunities to have conversations with people, even if it’s as short and simple as purchasing an egg. Integration begins with greeting and having conversations with people in your new community.

Constant interaction with new people was challenging for the first few months. Sometimes, especially in the early days, which can be chaotic, sitting with people is an easier act of integration because it does not require talking; it only requires you to be present. It’s a good day when you teach a class of learners a new vocabulary word but it’s an even better day if you get to sit with your host mom under the mango tree, eating fresh mangoes and just enjoying each other’s company.

4. What is a highlight of your time in service so far?

A highlight of my service has not been one specific moment but rather a collection of moments with my host sisters. I have three younger host sisters (ages 12, 5 and less than 1 year), and they are my best friends here in South Africa. I myself am a younger sister so it has been a fun privilege to be an older sister for a change.

As much as it was love at first sight with them, it’s also been a beautiful evolution where we are continually getting to know one another. Each one has her own unique personality and the more they open up and show me their true selves, the more I adore and appreciate that I was placed in their family. One of my happiest memories is one random evening when we were all gathered in my room. I was lying on the floor playing with the baby, the 5-year-old was playing with my hair, and the 12-year-old was reading aloud facts about Vermont, my home state, from my calendar. It was such a simple evening but it felt so full because we were all just simply existing together. Those are the moments that make South Africa feel like home.

5. What have you enjoyed most about the community where you are serving?

The most enjoyable part of my community has got to be the people that live here. South Africans are known for their friendliness but here in my village, everybody fully lives into the notion of loving your neighbor.

When I arrived the first time for site visit during pre-service training, I was met with a parade of drummers and dancers, who led us down the main road into the school, where they proceeded to celebrate and welcome me into the community for the rest of the school day.

While I am definitely not paraded around the village every day, the enthusiasm and eagerness of my community members to teach me any and everything has not waned. I ask a lot of questions and there is always somebody ready to answer every question I ask. Whether it’s language, culture, traditions, or even directions, there is always somebody more than happy to have a conversation with me about it.

Another thing I have enjoyed about my community are dikukus. A dikuku is a baked good that exists somewhere between a cookie and a scone, and they are often served with a cup of tea or coffee. My older host sister bakes and sells dikukus, and whenever she has an order, she will always make a few extra to give to me because she knows of my affinity for them. A simple and sweet act of kindness.

Volunteer baking in South Africa.
Preparing dikukus.

6. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from your community?

The most important thing I have learned from my community is what it really means to love your neighbor. It does not mean that you have to be their best friend and know everything about them but simply means to get to know them and be friendly. This attitude is not limited to the people who live directly next to you.

It can be an act as simple as a daily greeting. In South Africa, greetings are an all-day activity and you essentially greet everybody. Sometimes the interaction ends there but other times, it could turn into an entire conversation. There is a certain beauty in taking the time to have a short conversation with someone in the street.

The idea behind this is a concept called, “Ubuntu.” It means, “I am because you are. You are because I am.” I am a person because you are, and you are a person because I am one, too. So, I will see you and respect you because I am a person worthy of being seen and respected. It is such a loving notion that is truly lived in my community, and you can see it in the way that people exchange greetings all day (even if we’ve seen each other several times throughout the day).

Neighborliness abounds. You can never leave somebody’s house without a plate of food. One day, four people dropped everything, brought a gardening tool, and marched into my room after I said, “I think I see a snake.”

7. How do you spend time when you are not working on a project?

When I am not working on a project, you can often find me sitting on the porch of my host family’s house with a book in hand. Since being in country, I have read 32 books (audiobooks included) and my goal is to read 42 by the end of my service (my cohort number is SA42). I enjoy reading, and it has also provided an opportunity for “quiet" integration. It’s an independent activity that I can do while sitting with others. Often, when my host family sees me sitting outside, someone will come join me and do an activity of their own. Our activities don’t last for long as we eventually end up talking to one another but for the first few moments, it can be the best of both worlds, where we are simply existing in the presence of each other’s company.

Volunteer launching with a community member.
Alexis enjoying time with her host family.

8. What are you looking forward to in your remaining time as a Volunteer?

My biological sister came to visit in my first year, the first person from home to visit. We toured around South Africa a bit but she also spent a few days in my village to see my school and community and to meet my host family. My favorite part of that trip was when my biological sister met my host sisters and immediately hit it off. My biological sister is a dancer, so she and my host sisters immediately started dancing in the backyard and had the best time. Talk about hearts melting! What I am looking forward to the most for the remainder of my service is when my biological mom comes to visit and so she can meet my host mom. I cannot imagine a more joyful union.