“This eruption undoes stagnation”
I remember stirring from my slumber on the 15 hour flight. Dawn was just about to break, and I was grateful to have the window seat. The sky lit up with all the colors of the spectrum as the sun rose, somewhere over the Rainbow Nation. An hour later, at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport, I would be introduced to the Peace Corps South Africa Country Director, and then our group of 34 volunteers would pack our lives onto a bus to travel to our next resting place.
The bus ride was a silent four hour journey. Most of us were busy dreaming of all the familiar faces we had left behind. None of us knew quite what to expect once we arrived at our destination. We would later learn that not knowing what to expect would become our expectation for the next two years; resilience and flexibility- the two qualities Peace Corps advocates as most needful for making it through service.
The disappointment was palpable when we pulled onto a compound protected by razor wire, and what appeared to be an abandoned building. But expectations aside, it was time to set foot on Africa’s soil for the first time in my life.
One foot, now the other foot. I was home. Then, came the voices. Harmonic soul penetrated my ear drums and suddenly I forgot that I was far from the familiar. A group of nearly 20 African women and men, dressed in tribal patterns, bright blues, oranges, greens, yellows, and reds, wearing embroidered hats, handmade traditional skirts and dresses, and adorned in beads, erupted into song. We couldn’t understand the words, but we all remember how the spirit they evoked pierced our hearts, and placed Africa inside of us, forever.
We spent one week in confinement, unable to venture to even a nearby store without security and supervision. Then, we travelled to a rural area in Limpopo to be introduced to our host families. We had no idea what to expect. We were told we would stay with the families for 8 weeks during our pre-service training. We would eat our meals with our hosts, some of us would bathe in buckets, others would learn how to kill chickens, and how to eat porridge with our hands. I would be lying to say I didn’t have some fears and anxieties, but love was burning at my core. It was love that brought me to South Africa, love that would carry me through, and love that would flourish as I came to terms with the strange and uncomfortable dynamics of my new life.
There is no amount of preparation that can prepare a woman from the United States for the gender inequity of rural South Africa. While in the village, it is a violation of Peace Corps safety policy to be away from home past sundown. This is a needful policy as a friendly decline to marriage proposals is often interpreted by the village men as a cute game of “hard-to-get.” I am grateful for my host family for keeping me in a state of grace, love, and support as I surrendered my freedom as an independent female. Once again, if it weren’t for my heart leading the journey, I wouldn’t have made it through year one.
In my adventures, I have always found ways to cope with the inequities. I know by this point in my life, arguing values and norms is a waste of time. The only way to get others to consider new thinking is to first develop an understanding of why they are so adamant about their current thinking-be it cultural practices, beliefs, or cynicism. You can’t understand what someone believes and why without asking questions, nor without exuding a genuine appreciation for their free offering of ideas (whether you agree with those ideas or not). It’s about building trust and rapport with others.
When people feel appreciated, their guard subsides, stripping away the need for defensiveness, and opening the door for an exchange of ideas. If I scurried about pontificating to the men of traditional communities about women’s lib in America, then I would only be sending an unspoken message to my host community about my assumed superiority over their way of life. That’s not what I came here to do; I came here to open minds while opening my own mind, and to have a symbiotic relationship with my host community. I can’t do that by drawing a box around myself to magnify the distinctions between us. No, mutual growth can only be had by seeing through the lenses of unity, and through eyes of love-unconditional love. I’ve had to get creative in my engagements, and it has been a most enlightening challenge.
Last week, I stopped at a fruit stand to support the woman running her own little operation. We chatted for a bit about her work and her children when a man approached the stand. The woman excitedly told this tall middle-aged Venda man that I, the mukuwa, can speak Tshivenda. This led to an explanation of my presence in the community. The man was puzzled at my response when he asked how I am managing life in the village.
“It’s difficult…it’s very difficult for a white woman.” I hesitate for a moment wondering if I should be completely candid. My instincts led me to my next statement. “It’s difficult for any woman.”
The man took a small step back and looked at me squarely. In Venda culture, eye contact is not the norm, as it is believed to demonstrate a lack of respect. “Why is that?!” he replies indignantly.
I respond to his eye contact by projecting a loving and firm gaze to him, and then explain. “Many of the men do not talk to women nicely. When we say to leave us alone, they continue to disturb us. They can’t let us be free.” I tailor my communication to fit my audience, using the lingual style of the community (I am mildly conversational in Tshivenda by now, but communicating complex ideas in this tribal language is not yet my strong suit).
“But, it’s our culture,” he urges.
This is the comment I was warned about since arriving here. This is the one comment that seems to be paired with any and all resistance to change. I’ve heard many an acquaintance, friend, and counterpart express distaste for this comment, as they explain it’s use as an illogical excuse for stagnation. I choose not to become irritated by this comment. This man is sharing his beliefs with me, and it is my social responsibility to appreciate his candor, and to dig deeper for understanding. This isn’t about having a clash of cultures at a village fruit stand, it’s about opening minds. So, let’s stay on task.
“The woman can’t be equal-it’s our culture,” he continues.
“You are still a Venda man even if you respect the woman. The woman is a giver of life. You can’t be here without her. And she is the giver of all things-do you eat meals without a woman preparing them for you?” I ask.
“No, I can’t.” he agrees.
“To say a woman is not equal is like saying they are not human. But God made them human. How do we treat animals here in the village? We make them do work, and if they do not, we beat them” (I tactically use the term “we” in this conversation to convey a sense of unity; this conversation could take a turn for the worst if I am preaching about how “you people” treat animals. I’ve had many similar conversations here about the love and importance of animals, but that is not this particular conversation, so in the interest of efficacy, I stay honed in on my purpose in this moment). “Is that also how women are treated here?” I ask.
“Yes. But if we let the women be free, then they will no longer respect the man,” he explains his reasoning.
“It does not work like that. Right now, the woman is treated like an animal. If she is treated like a person, if she is allowed to feel like a human…If she is able to receive love and respect, then she can respect a man- even more. Let me ask you something. Do you have daughters?”
“Yes.” he replies.
“Do you want your daughter to feel like an animal, or like a strong woman?” I ask.
“Like a strong woman,” he states. “But it’s our culture.”
“Just because you do something differently, you are still a Venda. You will always be a Venda-that cannot change. Treating the people from your own culture with more love can make your Venda people even stronger. It is okay for some things to change, if we see it is better. You drive cars and use cell phones now because you see it is good.”
The man agrees, but I can tell I’ve just sent his world into whirlwind. Beliefs and traditions he has abided by for his entire life are now beginning to uproot, and he doesn’t know how to process it all at once. Then, remembering that most of this culture has also evolved beyond ancient spiritual beliefs, and now embraces Christianity as the authority on life, I decide to inspire him to consult his guiding forces.
“Just think about why God made her a woman and not an animal. Talk to God, and you will have your answer. And no matter what, you are always a Venda. It’s your blood.”
“I will talk to God,” the man walks away.
This was such an eye opening experience for me. I realized something during that conversation which I intend to keep in mind as I labor out here. These once oppressed cultures possess a very real fear of changing the one thing that they have managed to preserve throughout their history of wars, disease, and injustices. Their concept of culture is, in many cases, their only source of identity- it is the one thing that they have always had that even the turmoil of life could never take from them. This illuminates the most needful lesson of all as I embark on inspiring progress during my second year among the Venda people.
At the core of all that I do, shall be the lesson that just as life moves forward, we as individuals are destined to move forward. If we aren’t willing to adapt or to progress, then we aren’t participating in life at all- we are simply written history in an old and forgotten worn out book. Simply put, to survive, culture must also move along with life. I am grateful for the many opportunities I have to demonstrate this truth among my host community.
In January, I launched Takalani Empowerment Project. Takalani is one of my nicknames in South Africa, and it is a Tshivenda term meaning, “be happy.” The Takalani approach is to stimulate evolution through a process which allows the participants to identify their own needs and aspirations, to voice their perceived limitations to overcoming those challenges, and to unveil new beliefs in their own potential to transcend limitation. In other words, all of the participants are actively engaged in their development process as individuals. That process is then translated to community projects which put this newfound confidence into action. There are no hand-outs, and no promises of someone coming to solve their problems for them. The participants understand, as they affirm in our workshops, “if we don’t do good things for our communities, then no one will. We are our own heroes.”
After three months of workshops, I was blown away at how eager the participants were to create progress on their own. So, after months of Takalani Empowerment consisting only of myself and 50 youth, I affirmed that the right leaders and counterparts would enter my life. Six months after the launch of Takalani Empowerment, we have six new adult facilitators and six subprograms, which include boys and girls youth empowerment, food security, literacy, water and sanitation, vulnerable persons empowerment, and community resource development.As we continue to expand, a common question I am asked is how I can manage to do so much?
It’s simple. I believe in people. I believe the one thing people want and need the most is to feel inspired. And inspiration, folks, is the catalyst of creation, and the stimulus for growth and reckoning. I have witnessed the transmutation of apathy into passion, of defeat into courage, and of entropy into poeisis. When I have so many first hand experiences to justify my faith in this environment, how can there be any room for doubt?
I have been led to leaders from within the Venda community who have been demonstrating social responsibility and a passion for community building long before my presence here. These leaders are now role models for the community- exemplifying a new identity as evolutionaries of culture. As they stand before our group of participants, these leaders are a mirror to them. These revolutionary thinkers lead by reflecting to their people, and to me, the possibility, achievement, and progress which is contained in the cells of our bodies and the fibers of our being, just waiting to be tapped.
We, together, are living, breathing proof of the alchemy of potential.
Together, we have become aware of our truest identity; we are the livers of life and the creators of history.
Now, I saddle up and let go the reigns, embracing the impending unexpected, as the Universe and I write the book of South Africa Year 2.
Thank you for being here with me.
Disclaimer: The content on this webpage is mine personally and does not reflect the views or opinions of the United States Peace Corps, nor the United States Government.