Saturday, December 13, 2008

LGBTQ Resource

Behind the Mask is a webpage that compiles information on LGBTQ issues throughout Africa. Here is their South Africa page:

It includes an executive summary of the state of LGBTQ rights in South Africa, support resources in major cities including several in Pretoria, and frequently updated news articles on relevant topics.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Complex as the Shades of Chocolate

By Anonymous (name withheld by request of the author)

In reading about South Africa before I came here, I knew that race was going to play an interesting role in daily living. At the time, I decided though that the issue of race wasn’t going to be as much of a focal point for me as it was the culture behind the race that was more important to learn about. However, as culture and race are frequently intertwined, associated, and often conflated with one another, I soon came to find that the politics of one involved the other. So even though I wanted the issue of race to remain ‘at bay’ it didn’t and hasn’t. It is as such that it happened one day…the issue of color and race had finally hit home and it did so through two separate yet related incidences.

The first occurred at home. I was sitting there on my host mama’s couch watching my 9-year-old host sister, who so happened to be practicing her dance moves, twist and turn until she finally ended up doing a split near my feet. She saw the look of amazement in my face and then in a brief but still moment paused what she was doing to ask (in a telling way), “Are you white?”

Now, this is being directed to a 25-year-old woman who has defined herself as a Black American since she could long since remember. This is also being directed to a 25-year-old woman for whom race has played a secondary role to culture for her entire life. The minute she stated this, I could feel a surge of anger rising up in my chest. Anger, directed at the fact that I was being associated and in fact being defined by a classification I never associated myself with being. Anger, also in the fact this definition was coming from a nine-year-old host sister who asked this question so innocently but also so casually and flippantly, as if she was just flicking the question off of her shoulder, like a fly. I always have defined myself as being Black—that wasn’t of question to me—but what was of question was why my nine-year-old host sister was asking me this? I could see that this was a remnant question which lingered from a previous conversation I was having with another 9 year old about where I came from and what I considered myself.

Anyhow, continuing with the story, I replied to her question with a “No, I am Black…where I come from Black people come in all shades and colors.” She responded with a, “But why is your skin white?” She followed this by putting her arm next to mine and after careful inspection, as if with proud justification, declaring, “see, ‘white.’” I could see that this battle with my nine-year-old host sister was going to require a lot more ammunition than my throwing a fit. So I started pointing out examples. I first started out with a picture of a White woman which she had cut out for her homework. I pointed to the white woman and asked, “What is she?” to which she promptly replied “white.” I then pointed to my skin (which is honey in complexion) and said, “My skin looks a lot different from hers,” to which she replied, “But how come your hair is this long?” and she pointed to her shoulder. She was referring to the time she had seen me take my hair out of my twists and had made it into a ‘fro’ to wash it. Now ironically enough, I have always called my hair ‘Shaka Zulu hair’ depicting its stubborn, bold and sometimes even war like characteristics (and for anyone who has seen me in a fro or has done my hair you know what I’m talking about)! I began untwisting one of my twists, combed it out, and said, “see same as yours.” She then said, “but you speak English,” to which I responded with, “Yes, but this is my mother tongue and I speak other languages also just like you do.” It was at this point that I started to wonder whether she was calling me ‘white’ not so much because of my skin color but purely because she knew that I was American and because I spoken English. I however, decided to leave this point to argue over another day.

I then started stating examples of people with whom I thought she would be familiar. After a whole assembly line of people, I came upon two that made her stumble. I said, “So what do you think Alicia Keyes is?” She paused for a moment and said, “Black” and then I said but Alicia Keys speaks English, her hair is longer than mine, and her skin is lighter than mine…so why do you consider her Black?” I then took out a Newsweek and found a picture of Barack Obama and said, “He’s about my skin tone, what do you consider him?” To which she said this time and not asked, “Ok…but you are white!” I replied by saying, “Your skin color does not make you who you are and even though you may see me as white, I am Black so please call me by that if you are going to call me anything.” I could see that the battle hadn’t been won with her yet (and that this is what these two years are for) but it did get her thinking about these terms ‘black’ and ‘white,’ what they meant, and also how people weren’t as simple as ‘black’ and ‘white.’ I hope it began to get her to see that people were as complex as the shades of chocolate and that they came in white chocolate, hazelnut, honey/caramel, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate! ☺

I use this example to show that race is a deeply ingrained concept for many people, as even from the innocent question of a nine-year-old, race can have a deep impact. I also use this to show that the notion of ‘color’ and ‘race’ varies from culture to culture, from continent to continent, and even from nationality to nationality. The notion of being ‘black’ or even being perceived as such, in South Africa, is derived from a long legacy of apartheid which has shaped race to be a concept which is highly relative to social class and culture. In the end, I think South Africa, as with many other nations, is coming to see that you are who you are no matter whether you consider yourself “Black,” “White,” or any other color in this beautiful Rainbow Nation.

E-mail if you’d like to write something for this blog. Submissions on any topic, of any length, are welcome.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Link to AJ's Blog

Check out AJ Kumar's post about his experiences related to being South Asian in his village:


"The Lekgoa and the Lekwerekwere

“Lekgoa! Lekgoa!” the children scream as they run behind me. Well, I guess it’s not surprising; it’s what you expect as the only white person in the village. Every Peace Corps Volunteer is told to expect it. Wait a second…

I’m not white.

There is no mob of little people trailing me in adoration. There is no verbal labeling of “Whitey”. But there is another type of labeling.

My white colleagues may at first find me in an enviable position. As an American of South Asian decent, I fit rather well into my Tswana village. There are roughly half a dozen Bangladeshi and Pakistani shop owners (in addition to the Somali and the Chinese couple). When I showed up in the village, I wasn’t a rock star. People assumed I had come to sell biscuits and cooldrink (pop…or soda…or coke…whatever). Granted, it’s been almost a year now so people have mostly figured out that’s not my shtick. ..."

This is one example of the sort of entry we'd like to post here. E-mail if you'd like to contribute anything, short or long.

Monday, October 13, 2008


Welcome to the new project of the Diversity Committee! We have started this blog, “The Melting Pot in the Rainbow Nation,” to highlight the unique challenges and experiences of the diverse body of Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa.

Every diversity training session begins with the question “What is Diversity?” The very good reason for this is that there is no clear answer, and every person interprets this sometimes-controversial, sometimes-tired topic differently. For the sake of inclusion, we will use the Peace Corps Diversity Training Kit definition of, “All the human characteristics that make us unique and valuable as individuals.” We hope that each new contribution to this site will make it further apparent how far-reaching the word “diversity” can be.

America likes to think of itself as a “melting pot,” a place where all cultures come together and learn from each other, blending into a unique flavor. PCVs are by no means an accurate demographic reflection of the United States, but our body is still a melting pot that pulls from all parts of the U.S.’s cultural, economic, and experiential spectrum. The ideal is obviously flawed (if we are a melting pot, why so much segregation? Why do racial and gender inequities persist? Why so much religious acrimony? And etc.), but it is an ideal that the Peace Corps envelops on a worldwide scale in its fundamental goals: Peace Corps volunteers strive to learn from those who are different from us, to understand a multitude of histories and cultures, and to experience a life unlike the ones we were living in America.

Looking outwards at our differences with South Africa and its citizens, we sometimes forget the differences within our own group. If most volunteers are a certain age, gender, race, sexuality, or religion, it is easy to speak of their experience as “the” typical Peace Corps experience as if no variation is possible or important. Asked to consider the plausibility of this, we know immediately that it is not so. Each volunteer’s experience is different. Sometimes this is caused by such inherently variable things as personality or school/NGO assignment. Sometimes this is caused by systematic social differences, whether amongst PCVs or within South Africa. To name a simple example rather than make an endless list ending with “etc.,” a white volunteer’s experience will be different from a black volunteer’s experience, and both will differ from an Asian-American volunteer’s experience. Moreover, the experience of a volunteer serving in a primarily black community will differ from a volunteer serving in a primarily colored community, and both will differ from the experiences of volunteers living in white communities. These differences impact the PCV’s anonymity, command of trust, relationships, safety, feeling of belonging, and feeling of support within the Peace Corps community. Our awareness and experience of these differences impact the way in which we relate American culture to our communities in South Africa, a Peace Corps goal just as important as community development. This blog is a forum for PCVs to share and reflect upon the relationship between American diversity and their own experiences in Peace Corps.

The “Rainbow Nation” element of this blog’s name is just as important as the “Melting Pot” part. South Africa has idealized its racially and culturally mixed population, not with the metaphor of a spicy blend, but that of a beautiful spectrum that appears after a devastating storm. We are sometimes more aware of the flaws in this idealization than in our own country’s, observing both xenophobic attacks we are helpless to stop and our own uneasiness that being spoken to in Afrikaans may undermine the good work we hope to do. Yet again, these generalizations elide the experiences of many volunteers; some volunteers will tell the listener that Afrikaans is a beautiful language, spoken in colored communities just as deserving of help and attention as the black communities many of us work in. Some volunteers will sing the praises of their calm, mono-ethnic villages and others will marvel at the beauty of their hectic, diverse townships. Navigating the different elements of South African race relations and cultural norms is another layer of complexity in a Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience. This blog is also a forum for volunteers to reflect upon South African diversity and how it has impacted their experiences here.

This blog is intended to have a friendly, open tone; it should invite comment and reflection rather than defensiveness. Though we encourage critical thought in entries and comments, it should be thoughtfulness without acrimony. In addition, we ask that all readers assume good intentions on the part of the writer. Entries can be submitted to Jade ( and can deal with anything having to do with diversity and the experience of being a PCV, from the broad-based to an account of a single event. Comments are open to everyone, though they will be subject to screening by a moderator to ensure that the tone of this website remains productive and respectful. Please be sure to review the posting guidelines on the sidebar before writing anything.

That being said, please share your thoughts with us!