It is the second week of October as we sit here in San Antonio, Texas thinking about what to say in this final report on our Peace Corps experience. August was our last month in South Africa and it was by far the most emotional time for us. The month started easily enough. We continued to "back-off" from our activities at HEAPS, so we took a trip to Lesotho (a country located within the borders of South Africa) and enjoyed some beautiful scenery and very friendly (albeit very poor) people. Mary continued to assist home based care volunteers with patient visits, so I became her chauffeur (more about driving later). We also spent quite a bit of time delivering home based care supplies to our volunteers and attended a number of routine meetings in the office. About mid-month, things started to happen that kept us on an emotional high. Our friends, Father Brian and his wife Jane, invited us to an afternoon event (we thought at his church) and it turned out to be a surprise party for us at a hall, with about forty people in attendance. We were given some gifts, most notably a dress for Mary and matching shirt for me, made in the "Sotho" style. They were handmade by Zoliswa Delihlazo, one of our home based care coordinators. There were speeches from a number of people thanking us for what we did for them and telling us how much they would miss us. Pauline Mpatlanyane was crying so hard while she was speaking that we could hardly understand what she was saying. We heard "like a mother and father to me" and "I'll be lost without them." Then we started crying too. My thank-you speech was fairly well controlled; I only had to pause and gulp a couple of times to keep my composure. But Mary broke down in the middle of her talk and had to cut her comments short. The day went on with a lamb roast and then a whole lot of pictures. It was very gratifying to be honored like that, but a little uncomfortable to be the center of attention. We felt like a bride and groom. I was ready for a honeymoon!
A few days later we left for the Peace Corps office in Pretoria for three days of "checking out" of the Peace Corps. We had some exit interviews, medical and dental check-ups, various administrative processes (closing bank accounts, settling outstanding payments, etc.), and saying goodbye to other volunteers who were leaving about the same time. We were officially civilians again on Friday, August 22, 2003. It was a good feeling, since we no longer had to worry about getting caught breaking silly Peace Corps rules.
We drove back to Secunda that day and met HEAPS' new Peace Corps volunteer (Courtney), who would be staying with us until our final departure the following week, then taking over our apartment. She is a nice well-educated young lady who will be helping HEAPS' member organizations to strengthen their administrative processes. We helped orient Courtney to HEAPS and the Secunda area. We included her in all our social activities that week, so she was able to meet a lot of people. We had Brian and Jane over for dinner. We went to dinner at Claude and Marike's house. We went to a "pub night" fundraiser for the Anglican Church. And we filled in the other evenings with plenty of wine and good food.
On a recent trip back to the U.S. (more about that later), Mary bought 30 USA t-shirts to give to some of the people who helped make our time in South Africa better. In some cases we gave them to people with whom we were very close, but we also gave them to people who always greeted us with a smile and/or went out of the way to be nice to us. We gave t-shirts to a girl working at McDonalds, a girl in the pie shop, the taxi rank marshal, the three people in the union office near HEAPS, the attorney in the office next door (who helped us learn Zulu), and a girl in the office supply store. It was amazing how moved these people were to get something so small as a t-shirt. We got hugs from most of them and even some tears. Even saying goodbye to some of our more casual acquaintances was difficult. But it was so rewarding to know they appreciated us as much as we appreciated them.
On Thursday of that week, HEAPS had the second annual home based care volunteer luncheon. We have grown to 11 home based care organizations with 225 volunteer caregivers and this luncheon was intended to honor them for all the great (and very difficult) work they have done in the past year. Once again, Mary and I were surprised by the outpouring of love and gratitude toward us. The luncheon turned into another going away party for us, this time with about 250 people. Each of the 11 organizations sang and many of them presented us with gifts (including shoes handmade from goat skin and tire tread soles, jewelry, a statue, cups and saucers, a framed picture and a blanket with a large eagle on it). We were overwhelmed! On Friday (the day before we were leaving Secunda) Mary was still out with home based care volunteers helping with patients. And by then we had been out of the Peace Corps for a week. Now that's dedication!
On Saturday, after some seriously efficient packing, we were picked up by Lorraine and Karabo Masipa and their uncle, and taken to their father's home in Johannesburg. For those of you who don't remember, Paul and Jeanette Masipa (Lorraine and Karabo's parents) were our host family during our training in 2001. Unfortunately, Paul and Jeanette couldn't make it down from the Northwest Province, so we said our good-byes by phone. In any event, we spent the rest of Saturday and part of Sunday with Lorraine, Karabo, their Aunt Elizabeth and her sons Obakeng and Omphemetse. On Sunday afternoon Lorraine drove us to the airport and, 35 hours later, we arrived at our home in lovely Bonita Springs Florida.
People ask why we joined the Peace Corps; and we say things like "to help our fellow man", "to experience another culture", "to travel", or maybe "to stay active". But it's hard to express our real motivation, probably because it's a mixture of all of the above plus some other rationale we have trouble putting into words. Whatever the reasons, it just seemed right for us. Now that it's over, we look back and ask ourselves what we got from our time in the Peace Corps and we can honestly say it was far more than we could have ever realistically expected. We did help our fellow man, we did experience other cultures, we did travel and we did stay active. But, there was so much more:
- We made lifelong friends.
- We had a tremendous sense of satisfaction from seeing the fruits of our efforts. HEAPS went from an idea to an active organization with hundreds of people focusing on a huge problem.
- We learned so much about the strength of the human spirit as we encountered people living in squalor (or maybe even dying of AIDS) with smiles on their faces and words of encouragement for us.
- We found acceptance. Even though we talk funny, look different and were often unaware of (and therefore insensitive to) their customs, the people welcomed us into their homes and families without reservation.
- We were appreciated. This was the most visible and ego building aspect of our experience. People were constantly thanking us for being there. We were acknowledged and thanked at numerous large gatherings, in small groups and even by individuals on the street. We never totally realized how good it feels to be appreciated. Now we do.
Our Peace Corps experience was not without frustration. The government of South Africa is only ten years old and suffers from inexperience and some corruption. The public education and medical systems are weak. Crime is rampant. The policies toward HIV/AIDS are backward and not conducive to stopping the epidemic. And to make matters worse, the Peace Corps rules are bureaucratic and unnecessarily restrictive. All that, along with being around so many sick people and tragic deaths from AIDS, certainly caused us some periods of depression. But, the good far outweighed the bad and the people of South Africa made for a wonderful experience.
Before we arrived in South Africa, we had conceded that we were not likely to make a dent in the HIV/AIDS problem there. So we had relatively low expectations regarding any impact we might have during our service. But, even though the epidemic continues to worsen, we do feel we made a difference. The members of HEAPS have made many sick people more comfortable and enabled many to die with dignity. And we are absolutely convinced that some of our awareness programs have changed the behavior of people, thereby avoiding HIV infection. We have a great deal of satisfaction knowing that we have contributed to saving and/or prolonging lives.
Ok, that's enough reflecting. Let's get back to something fun, like breaking the rules. Although it's understandable that a U.S. government agency would have a lot of rules pertaining to its thousands of volunteers around the world, they have gotten carried away, seemingly because of liability rather than a sincere interest in volunteer well being. For example, if a nice big, well-maintained Peace Corps vehicle didn't have enough seat belts for all passengers, they would send the excess passengers to a khumbi (public transport) which is poorly maintained, stuffed with people and has no seat belts. They don't allow volunteers to drive, even though driving a car is much safer than khumbies. Then there are the rules that don't make a lot of sense, e.g., weekends away from your site don't count as vacation days, but, if you leave the country (even to Lesotho or Swaziland, which are inside the boundaries of S.A.), weekends do count as vacation time. Or, we can't leave our site during our last three months of service, even though our assignment requires that we back off from the organization so they can get used to operating without us. Or, we can't go to Johannesburg or Pretoria because they are unsafe (but they're safer than most of the cities to which volunteers are assigned). Or we were required to take malaria medication, even though we were not in a malarial area.
In addition to the silly rules, the Peace Corps administration tended to treat volunteers like children. There were always warnings that, if you break this or that rule, you will be "administratively separated" (i.e., kicked out Peace Corps). When we took a vacation to the U.S., we had to sign a form acknowledging that, if we didn't return on schedule, we would be administratively separated. Once, we were asked to sign a form saying, if we used any computer in the Peace Corps office other than one designated for volunteers, we would be administratively separated (we didn't sign that one). If we were caught on a motorcycle we would be administratively separated. If we were caught riding a bicycle without a helmet we would be administratively separated. If we bought real estate or kept any gambling winnings, we would be administratively separated. I guess you get the picture! We complained bitterly about our transportation problem. HEAPS covers an area 75 kilometers across (50 miles) and we consider khumbi travel too unreliable and unsafe. When we complained that we could only do a half-assed job if we weren't able to drive, a Peace Corps official said they would accept a half-assed job. As you might imagine, the end result of the silly rules and idle threats is that most volunteers simply do what they want. We followed the rules that made sense or were in our best interest, but ignored the rest. We feel compelled to confess our sins; so the following is a list of some of those things we did to make our time in South Africa more enjoyable, meaningful or otherwise easier on us or our organization. In each case we were in violation of Peace Corps rules.
- We bought and drove a car. Actually, we donated the money to HEAPS for the purchase of a used car (a 1999 Fiat Uno) that we named Peace Corps 1. We got the car in May 2002 and Drove it 50,000 kilometers (about 30,000 miles) by the end of August 2003. About two thirds of the use was on HEAPS business (visiting our member organizations, delivering supplies, going to meetings, taking Mary to visit patients, etc.) and the rest for our personal enjoyment.
- Mary took two unauthorized trips to the U.S.A (once for a condo repair in Florida and once to see Tessa, our new granddaughter). The second time was during our period of travel restriction.
- We went to Lesotho and to Swaziland twice.
- We went to the Drakensburg Mountains.
- After getting the car, we went to Johannesburg almost every Sunday for a lunch and a movie.
- We didn't take our Malaria medication, except for the several times we ventured close to a malarial area.
- We joined Kelly and Anibal on the Honeymoon part of their trip, to Cape Town.
- We made a clandestine visit to Pretoria (home of Peace Corps headquarters) for a movie.
- From time to time we visited fellow Peace Corps volunteers at their sites, including Sydney, Bev, Ed, Jadawn, Apryl, Jean, Elizabeth, Monica, Cynthia and Frank.
- We went with the Masipas to the Sudwala Caves (during travel restriction).
But we always wore our bike helmets and never rode a motorcycle. And most importantly, we never used the wrong computer in the Peace Corps office.
Chess Update: The series ended in a tie. Roger and I are co-champions of international chess. We would both have liked to prove our superiority but neither wanted to rush the final game. So, the series was called because of time. I want to congratulate Roger for a well-played series. I'm relieved it's over as the last couple of games were giving me brain cramps.
We have one last happy birthday wish to our handsome new grandson. 8 pound, 8 ounce (3.9kg) Jordan Clemente Martinez was born at 7:17am, Tuesday, September 30, 2003. Mary and I were present at the birth, along with Kelly and Anibal of course. Everyone is doing well, including the grandfather. Welcome to the family Jordan! Look for some pictures of Jordan in the Photo Gallery.
The purpose of this web site and these monthly reports has been to keep our family and friends up to date on our whereabouts and activities, without necessarily writing a lot of individual letters. We hope we achieved that objective without boring readers with too many personal details and philosophizing. We are also aware that some regular readers of these reports are not people we know. We are honored that you took an interest in our adventure and hope you gained an appreciation of South Africa and its wonderful people. Thank you all for the support and encouragement.
Sala Kahle and Farewell, Thabo and Nthabiseng (Mary and Jerry)
P.S. Katie and Jacob We are about to say goodbye to your new cousin Jordan and leave for Michigan to see you. We can't wait to give you big hugs. We've been in Texas for quite a while, so it's possible a rattlesnake or a scorpion or an armadillo crawled into our suitcases or into our pockets. If you don't mind, we would like you to unpack our suitcase when we get there.
Tessa We can't wait to see you. Grandpa hasn't even seen you yet and you're almost four months old. Grandpa is a little scary looking, so it's ok if you close your eyes and cry. That's what Grandma does when she looks at him.