Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From Encyclopedia To Pornography

by LaTosha Parker

Coming from North Carolina, I've become accustomed to questioning the actions and intentions of some people if I feel I'm being marginalized because of my race (or gender). With that said, I take that attitude from the states and magnify it by 100 here. Racism (and sexism) is in my face EVERYDAY! Its just the way things are here in South Africa, rural and urban.

On a recent Sunday morning, I spent time at a used book stand. Cheap used books are my thing, so I took my time looking through them. After about 20 minutes, I ended up with three novels. One is about an ancient Christian relic stolen during WWII and the modern day recovery of the item. Another involves a murder-mystery during the Medieval Period in the town of Cambridge, England. And the third is an Anne Rice vampire novel (enough said). All three are decent sized. Between 300 to 400 pages (give or take), so nothing I plan to read in its entirety on a 30 minute taxi ride.

As I was paying for the books, one of the owners commented on how much I'm going to enjoy the stolen Christian relic novel. He really liked it and found it to be a good read. The man was very polite, white, and kind of hippy-ish. After saying such positive things about one of the books, he said, "If you like these, then you'll probably enjoy a couple other books I have." So, now I'm intrigued and I follow him over to another table.

He hands me two "thin" paperback books with black female characters on the front. The women are tall, shapely in the butt, small thin waists, long braids, and wear tight clothing. The owner proceeds to tell me that he knows the two black South Africa female authors who wrote the books. They even personally signed his copies. "I figured you might be interested in these books, because...well...you know...," he said. I cut him off with a polite smile so he didn't have to try to finish the sentence.

Since he was so polite, and in all honesty meant well, I decided to indulge him and read the book summaries on the back. Both books revolved around the "Angry Black Women" themes of baby-daddy-drama, sex issues, and balancing work with it all. Both leading women in the books were single with children. One book used "slutty" to describe the intentions of the main character.

In the spirit of forgiveness and tolerance, I guess I should commend the white owner of the used book store for at least making an effort to bridge a gap by even suggesting a book for me...

...Or maybe I should be absolutely and unconditionally insulted by the fact that his attempt to bridge a gap involved belittling my intelligence and suggesting I'd prefer dime books about sex and baby-daddy-drama (maybe because the author is black) over a good long read about murder taking place in a kingdom during the Middle Ages of England, or armed forces trying to steal back a symbolically powerful Christian artifact during WWII?

The owner knows nothing about me or my background. I'm a history teacher. I studied Modern European, American, Classical, and Black American history for four years at university and taught United States History, World History, and World Religions for two. By default, that makes me a nerd, which I know and own. I like long boring books and movies that most of my friends would never read or sit through with me. That's part of the isolation that comes along with being a nerd.


I wonder what the white owner saw when he looked at me spending that time at his book stand that one Sunday morning. Obviously something that lead him to believe I prefer books about raunchy sex, unhealthy relationships, and single-motherhood...

You know how I felt? Its as if I walked in there to buy an encyclopedia, but the owner felt I might like his latest pornographic novel since I had something in common with the characters and authors. You know...being black an all...

Friday, September 4, 2009

I did not feel comfortable announcing that I was gay

by Anonymous

I am speaking today from the perspective of a volunteer who is gay. When I started Peace Corps I was at a time in my life where I was just beginning to come out to the people in my life. Before arriving in South Africa I felt it would be the right time and place for me to finally be completely open about my sexuality. I thought that, at the very least, I would be ok with being out within my group of volunteers.

Within my group of PCVs I did not feel comfortable announcing that I was gay. For many reasons, perhaps mostly to due with my comfort level with being open amongst strangers, I felt it was not the safest place to do that.

I was also surprised that I was, quite obviously in my opinion, the only gay man in my group. Although there are a few lesbian women in my group they have also chosen to remain in the closet. This also encouraged me to stay in the closet.

As time went on, it became comfortable for me to 'out' myself to specific volunteers. This proved to be a great support. I still however believe that I don’t need to out myself to anyone, that there is a lot to who I am as a person and being gay just happens to be one part of who I am.

At my first site, I encountered a lot of homophobic comments. I was not open and the comments were not directed at me, but were still very hurtful and made me very afraid to be open. I have also encountered some homophobic language within PCVs. This is few and far between and never directed at me but has continued to be very hurtful.

At my current site, I live in an extremely rural and conservative village. I am 100% in the closet and question my safety if I were to come out. If not my safety my reputation and respect would, I feel, be diminished. I do not blame any one person in my village for this, and regret that I must be so presumptuous, but ignorance about homosexuality in this country and especially in rural areas is extreme. I do not posses the language ability to educate about homosexuality in a foreign language, either.

I do not hear any homophobic comments in my current village. I do however get asked weekly if I have a girlfriend, if I am married (something I can't do in my home state), if my Gogos can come to America to cater my wedding, if I want a Zulu wife etc. This has been an issue my whole life, but seems to be more and more frustrating in this setting.

Having said all of this, I have had the chance to be openly gay in this country. I have been to the Johannesburg Gay Pride festival, gay bars in Joburg, Pretoria and Durban, and am excited to see the gay scene in Cape Town –the San Francisco of the African continent. I was also in a relationship with a South African for about six months. I have met many gay South Africans, of all races and social classes, but the more rural one gets the less people seem to identify or acknowledge being gay.

I have found that fellow PCVs have been my biggest support system for this aspect of my life. They provide me with the outlet to just be who I am. I have accepted that I can't be open in my village and this is ok; I am here to work as a volunteer and the social aspect of my life can wait.

As I said, I have only been openly gay for a few years and most of that has been amongst a select few friends here in South Africa. This is the first time I have spoken about being a Peace Corps Volunteer who is gay to a large group of people. Thank you for this opportunity.

If you'd like to write something for the Diversity Blog, please contact Jade (jade.lamb@gmail.com). We are interested in hearing all of your stories.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I know you're American, but where are you really from?

by Jessyca Dudley

I am a Black American, my parents are Black Americans, and you would have to go back at least 5 generations to find someone in my family who was not born and raised in the United States. Still, the idea that I am Black and American is puzzling to most people that I meet, Black, White, Indian, Colored or otherwise in South Africa. More often than not, people assume that I am South African and increasingly I can get through whole transactions in stores without anyone catching on that I am not from South Africa. Most often it’s the fast pace that I walk, or when I’ve run out of words in Siswati and switch to English that people begin to wonder where I am from. Once it’s confirmed that I’m not South African, the second logical choice for most people is that I must be from Mozambique, do I speak Portuguese? No. Then maybe the UK? You must be from the UK on a visit. No. America? Really? OK, you’re an American but where are you really from?

Where are you really from? It seems to be an inevitable question because for most people I have met there is a belief that although there are Black people in the U.S., and they may in fact have American citizenship, they are not actually from the U.S. Most people think that I must be from Jamaica, or maybe my parents are African. “Nope, not Jamaican, and my parents were born in the U.S. also.” This is usually met by a look of shock. Yet, sometimes it doesn’t even get that far, because there are also people who simply refuse to believe that I am not South African. They continue talking to me in a language that I do not understand despite my looks of confusion. They think that I am lying, that I am trying to distance myself from traditional life and culture, maybe visiting from J’burg or Cape Town. Sometimes it’s just easier to lie and sometimes it’s just easier to walk away.

Even when I am with other volunteers from the U.S. people have a hard time understanding that I am not South African. When I am with White volunteers, people assume that I must be their tour guide or a friendly local helping them on their travels. People address me in their local language assuming that I will translate to other volunteers. People often greet the White volunteers first and sometimes do not greet me at all. Sometimes volunteers that I haven’t met yet assume that I am a South African counterpart who has come along with the volunteers. On good days we laugh about it, on bad days it’s frustrating, annoying, and leaves me drained.

There have been days that I wanted to scream “I am not from here!”, “I am an American!”, “I have no idea what you are saying to me!”, but there are also days when I am relieved that small children don’t point at me and grab my hair, that people don’t stop to stare at me when I walk by. Sometimes people are fascinated by the fact that I am a Black American and sometimes they couldn’t care less. Sometimes it must mean that I must know Oprah, Obama and Chris Brown, but most of the time it means that I must be rich and have a car like every other American.

On few occasions in my life has the fact that I am Black and American been so troubling to people, so hard for them to believe. On few occasions have I had such difficultly explaining myself to other people, or struggled to differentiate myself from people that I otherwise appear to be just like. It has been an eye opening experience that I am sure I will continue to confront throughout my service.

Jessyca is a volunteer with the Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Project. She currently lives and works in Mpumalanga.

If you'd like to write something for the diversity blog, please contact Jade (jade.lamb@gmail.com) or LaTosha (parkld82 at gmail dot come). We're interested in hearing all of your stories and experiences.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Our Mission and Vision Statement

Vision | In appreciation of the rich and varied cultures that exist in
our respective countries, we pledge to embrace diversity, not run
from it; to celebrate our differences, not hide from them; to face the
past with honesty and humility and thus learn from it; and to
perpetuate a positive exchange of stories and experiences that can
enrich our service and our lives. In so doing, we are empowered with
the knowledge that we will take home a legacy of strength far greater
than anything we can hope to leave behind.

Mission | Using lessons drawn from the histories of both the Republic
of South Africa and the United States of America, as well as from the
stories and experiences of volunteers, the Peace Corps South Africa
Diversity Committee will create and implement strategies for genuine
and respectful exchange in order to promote the awareness and value
of diversity. We aim to:

- Encourage and assist the practice of authentic dialogue between
volunteers and host country nationals;
- Support understanding about diversity among our fellow
volunteers through creating and developing team-building
activities and dialogue strategies;
- Prepare all volunteers—of every heritage and persuasion—for
the special challenges pertaining to diversity that may arise in
South Africa;
- Support and advise other volunteer committees—including
Volunteer Advisory Committee and Volunteer Support
Network—in addressing diversity issues;
- Assist Peace Corps South Africa staff in addressing issues
surrounding the diversity of volunteers.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

They Had Opened Up Their Home

by Oliver Borzo

I live in an apartment complex in the city of Tzaneen in Limpopo province. If the weather is amenable, the parking lot of my complex will be swarming with children looking for something, anything, to do. One day as I walked home from work, I noticed a steady stream of children running in and out of one of the flats with their faces smeared with frosting and other foodstuffs. Loud music emanated from the flat; music that was neither South African nor American in its origin. My interest sufficiently piqued, I wandered closer to get a look inside the open door. I passed the door and was immediately beckoned in by who I presumed to be the host of the festivities.

Against one wall sat three elderly Shangaan ladies. I knew they were Shangaan speakers because of their traditional clothing—a colourful cloth draped over various undergarments in the manner of a toga. Each woman held in her hands a large can of Windhoek Lager and looked a little flummoxed by the goings on of the party that surrounded them. We were celebrating a birthday, but the birthday boy, who had just turned one year old, was currently asleep.

The parents of the child, and in fact most of the party goers, were East Africans, but I could not tell from what country exactly. Since I felt uncomfortable bluntly asking where they were originally from, I tried a less straightforward tact.

“What kind of music is this?” I asked slyly.

“Yes it is very good”, one man answered with a smile.

“Where is this music from?” I asked realizing my mistake.

“My brother…” the man said warmly.

After some additional back and forth, I ascertained that I was spending my time with a large group of Ethiopians. They had opened up their home to all of the kids living in the complex for this party, which was a brave thing to do. The kids were running around the living room, eating and spilling slices of cake on the floor. The children living at my apartment complex reflect Tzaneen’s diversity—there are Shangaans, Afrikaners, Bapedi, Somolians, and Indians all causing havoc, together.

The host asked me if I eat meat. I answered in the affirmative and was instantly provided with a plate heaping with Ethiopian food. There was sizable piece of injera, the thin, spongy bread traditionally eaten in Ethiopia, which had been rolled up into a sort of bread-scroll. There were also a few different stews, all of which tasted very different than the traditional South African food I had had so much of lately. I looked around and notice that I was the only one with food. Normally I would feel a little guilty about that, but I was also starving.

One of the Ethiopians asked me if I like the music they are playing. He must have assumed that all of my questions about the music indicated some special interest. I nodded enthusiastically. He asked my name and I tell them the answer, which is Oliver Borzo. Something about my name seemed suspicious and a few questions later I was forced to reveal that I am an American. This created a stir and I suddenly felt like a department store Santa who gets caught unexpectedly during his lunch break. In between bites of what was glorious food, I posed for pictures with nearly everyone in the room.

While much of 2008’s headlines focused on xenophobic violence in South Africa, my experience in Tzaneen has been far removed from that. Here, diversity is not viewed as a threat and expatriate communities are able to share their culture with pride.

Oliver is a CHOP (Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Project) volunteer living in the Limpopo Province.

If you'd like to write something for the Diversity Blog, please contact Jade (jade.lamb@gmail.com) or LaTosha (parkld82 at gmail dot com).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"So, Refilwe, You're Retarded?!"

by Erin Gannon

When I was in second grade I went through a bunch of tests and was eventually told that I had a learning disability. The word “dyslexia” meant very little to me but as I got older and started to see clearly that my mind really did work differently than others, “dyslexic” became a word that described me, a part of my identity.

I was raised in a family where my father was involved with disability rights issues for his entire career. Growing up I knew many adults with all different types of ability and disability and I was raised with a universal respect for people. When I was identified as dyslexic, my parents sat me down, explained to me that this was how my mind worked and I should never be ashamed of it but I should also never use it as a crutch. This conversation with my parents created a simple framework for understanding myself as a person with a learning disability – there are things I cannot do but there are many, many things I can do and I am proud of my mind which is indivisible from my disability. I went on to study art education and I did my Master’s thesis on the intersections between disability rights and art education practices. I chose to locate the rights of all people with disabilities in both my personal and professional lives.

I brought my belief in disability rights with me to South Africa, packed along all of my other cultural baggage. I knew support for people with disabilities in rural villages would probably not be at the same level as the support people get in the US, but I didn’t know what to expect.

Very early on the simple fact hit me that if I attended the schools in our training village (or in my current village, or really in most villages) I would never have learned to read. I would have probably dropped out of school by the end of primary school. I would surely have been told I was “slow” and possibly been beaten for my inability to keep up with the “clever” students in my classes. The educators in my life are incredibly hard working and dedicated, but they are under trained and the concept of a learning disability is pretty far outside of their life experiences. Kids like me get lost in the chaos of trying to educate children in rural villages.

Once, I tried to explain learning disabilities to an educator I had been working closely with. She was complaining that there was a girl in her class who was “clever” but “refused” to understand some simple maths problems. I had worked with this kid before and although I’m totally not qualified to diagnose LD in a student, I did see some indicators that seemed to point to a learning disability. I explained that some people have learning disabilities and that this as a sort of gap between their intelligence and their ability to perform in certain areas. The educator looked at me and said, “So, she’s retarded?”

I responded that a learning disability was a different thing than mental retardation and that mental retardation was defined by a low IQ. I then took a deep breath and decided to do something I regularly do with Americans but had never done with an African, I told her about my dyslexia.

She seemed to think for awhile, she searched me with her eyes, and then she asked, “So, Refilwe, You’re retarded?!”

It was clear that she felt betrayed, she had been taking guidance and forming a friendship with a person who was mentally retarded. In that moment I was also wounded because I realized everything we had worked on had been undermined by my honesty. Also, undoubtedly we come from a culture that values intelligence and to have mine questioned was a matter of pride. It was an emotional moment for each of us. She felt betrayed, and I felt a little too close to my days in middle school when classmates had yelled, “short bus!” and did grotesque impersonations of people with cognitive disabilities as we left our LD tutor’s room.

I went on to try and explain further, I found some articles on learning disabilities and how to best serve children with learning disabilities in your classroom, I talked to the principal about the appropriate channels for educators to follow if they suspect one of their learners had a Learning Disability but in the end my efforts sort of flopped and no matter what I did I never managed to repair my professional relationship with that educator.

There is a fair amount of humiliation involved with having dyslexia and hiding it. I still shake when I have to write on a board in a workshop I am giving for fear that I will spell something wrong even though I have typed everything and spell checked it. In taxis I avoid the front seat like the plague because the simple computation involved in taking the money is beyond me. I do my best not to let my teachers see me counting on my fingers. I use all the hiding mechanisms I used in grade school because once again I’m trying to “pass” as someone without a learning disability.

I continue to be open with my Peace Corps colleagues about my dyslexia but I have made a choice to not share my status as a person with a disability with my South African colleagues and learners. This is probably not the most constructive thing, of course there are opportunities for education and growth in my sharing with South Africans about my life as a person with a learning disability. All things considered, though, I have made this choice in an effort at self preservation and a preservation of my professional status within my schools. It’s an extremely personal decision what parts of your life you chose to share in a culture that is not necessarily understanding of some differences. It is also important to your happiness and mental health to identify what battles you want to fight and which things are simply outside of what you will address in your service.

In your service you will probably encounter people with disabilities. One UN estimate put the worldwide percentage of people with disabilities at about 10% and stated that that number is higher (and harder to measure) in developing countries. You will also encounter a variety of circumstances that people with disabilities are living in. My host brother has Downs Syndrome and lives the typical lifestyle of a young man in the village, working on the families’ mealie fields and hanging out at the shop. I also know a family with a child with a severe cognitive disability and he is living at home with limited opportunity but unlimited love from his family. I know kids who have dropped out of school and we will never know if it was a learning disability that prevented them from succeeding. Disability is one of my “cultural lenses” Peace Corps is so fond of talking about and so this colors my experiences here.

Erin is a volunteer with the Education program in Northwest Province.

If you are interested in writing something for the Diversity Blog, please e-mail Jade (jade.lamb@gmail.com) or LaTosha (parkld82 at gmail dot com).

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I didn't like hiding, it wasn't me.

by Justin Mitzlaff

Flashback......Justin's life.....Pre-Peace Corps......GAY! Yes, you read it right, my life was gay. I worked at a gay and lesbian non-profit organization. I worked with queer youth, I helped to establish GSA's (gay straight alliance) in Kitsap and Mason County schools, a majority of my friends were gay and lesbian and if I was at an event or volunteering for one, it more and likely was for gay and lesbian people. It was a time of my life where I was very proud to be gay and everyone knew I was gay. There was nothing holding me back and I wasn't afraid to tell people who I was. It's a part of my life that I now miss very much.

Life now...hmmmm. It's of course nothing like it was before this whole crazy adventure began. It's so hidden, so unlike me. During PST, only the people in my group knew that I was gay. It was so hard, especially since I had developed a wonderful bond with my host mom. I wanted to tell her so much of who I am, the real Justin. I didn't like hiding, it wasn't me.

When I go to my site, Mentz, I told my host sister that I was gay, because we had become really good friends and she wasn't buying the whole, I don't want a girlfriend they are just trouble routine. She was very accepting of who I was and we often sat in my room and giggled and gossiped about the guys in the village. It was fun, but a part of me still didn't enjoy having to hide from the whole village of who I really was.

I did meet quite a few guys in Mentz who were straight, but like to have sex with men. They had no grasp or concept of the word bisexuality or gay. They just knew that gay was bad! Most of them were in shock when I told them that my family knew that I was gay and were just fine with it. For the few who were gay, they said they would never ever tell their family or friends. It was heartbreaking to hear and see these guys who would never be able to come to terms with themselves because of the society around them. But it wasn't all sad. I could go into many of the funny stories and phone calls that came along with meeting and befriending many of these guys. They definitely made my experience in Mentz fun and interesting.

Sadly, I had to leave Mentz and now live in the town of Barberton. Barberton is a town of many different people... White, Black, Indian, Colored and Chinese. It too is stuck in a stigma that being gay is bad bad bad. Once again, I have met a few guys who are gay, but they would never tell their parents or friends.

I know one guy in town who is openly gay and the town always isn't so nice to him because of it. All the other closeted gays think they are the only gay guy in town. They can't believe that I know so many others. Yet, they don't want to meet each other, in fear of people and family finding out. It's sad...it makes me want to do something for them. But where on earth do I even begin with starting something like that. I want the queer crown here to be open and proud!! But like the gay and lesbian movement in America, I have a feeling it’s going to be something that will take a great amount of time.

My heart hurts for these people...I understand their struggle and desire to be themselves. And no matter how hard it is for me to be somewhat closeted here, I always know that I can go back to America and be open and gay as hell again. The people here, in the villages and townships, these small towns hidden from the big cities, will probably spend most of their life hidden...a thought for me that is just so heartbreaking. I can only hope that the gay movement in South Africa becomes strong in the near future and that those who are LGBTQ can be free and open.

Justin is a CHOP (Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Project) Volunteer in the Mpumalanga Province. He is also a member of DIversity Committee.

If you'd like to write something for the blog, e-mail Jade (jade.lamb@gmail.com) or LaTosha (parkld82 at gmail dot com).