I arrived in South Africa as one of 57 bright-eyed Americans making up the 24th group of volunteers to serve here since the program started in ’97.
There’s my language group, on the day we swore-in as volunteers! Peace Corps babies, the lot of us.
Some volunteers I saw once or twice a month. Some I only saw once or twice a year. But we shared the intense experience of being idealistic outsiders dealing with challenges like poverty, racism, death, violence, sexism, hopelessness, struggling schools, illness, and isolation. Not to mention mundane stuff like noisy roosters, pit latrines, public taxis, unfamiliar food, cross-cultural confusion, and water scarcity. And, of course, the moments that make you join Peace Corps in the first place: getting through to a failing student, inspiring a girl to believe in herself, feeling at home in culture that once seemed alien, or crossing the color line that still exists in much of South Africa. When you have those shared experiences, a few months apart don’t seem like such a barrier.
Among the many things for which I’m grateful to the Peace Corps, I’ll include introducing me to one of the best support systems I’ve ever had.
For various reasons, not everyone completed their two years: 47 of us made it to July 2013. Four of us decided to stay another year, and everyone else is preparing to leave South Africa.
So Peace Corps gathered us together for a three-day ‘Close of Service” conference to help us reflect on our time here, plan for the future, answer difficult questions (“what was it really like?”) without boring everyone, take language tests, and complete a lot of paperwork.
It was bittersweet. I’m proud of how far we’ve all come, even as saying ‘goodbye’ feels surreal. Especially because everyone who returns to America is dead to me. No, not really. But I’m going to miss bumping into my cohort all over this big beautiful country.
Here’s a picture of my language group, after two years of village life, saying goodbye:
Crazier, closer, more patriotic, with longer hair, but still smiling. Seems about right.