I traveled to KwaNdebele to interview George. He was relatively new to Peace Corps. He smiled freely, his eyes were bright, he was excited about the prospect of helping to revitalize his community.
George lives with a host family that operates an herbalism business in his community. I had spent the night in a small house on the family compound. The house was typically set aside for the ancestors, but occasional guests were welcome, as well. I woke up to body aches and extreme fatigue. I thought I was just exhausted from working too hard. I would find out later that I had African tick-bite fever.
That morning I followed George to his first class of the day. It was grade seven, or eight. The room was filled with the familiar clamor that I associated with a South African classroom. George yelled and clapped his hands, desperately trying to cut through the noise. The roar softened slightly, and George attempted to teach the students math.
I left the class and went out to the school grounds. I shot footage of a crowd of older students who were skipping class in order to practice faux kung- fu. Inside one of the classrooms, some of the younger students were standing on desks, fists in the air. They were chanting in unison. The teacher was away. It was Lord of the Flies.
I left the school to shoot footage of traditional Ndebele houses.
When I returned to the school at the end of the day, I met George in the teacher’s lounge. He had given the students a practice test, and they had all failed. We made our way back to his house, and George recounted disappointing results. He had probably had stressful days in the past, but this was different.
Every Peace Corps volunteer has a moment, early in their service, when they fully realize that their Peace Corps experience is not going to resemble their Peace Corps dream. For me, that moment came one afternoon when I visited one of the schools near my site. I was not assigned to this school, but I wanted to see if I could help out in some way. One of the teachers showed me a whip, which was designed for use on cattle, but which he used to discipline the students. He told me that African children wanted to be whipped, because they lacked motivation. We disagreed on that point.
George and I returned to the house. George took a nap. I set-up for the interview and drank copious amounts of caffeine, in hopes of countering the exhaustive effects of Tick-Bite fever. After an hour or so, George joined me in the ancestor’s house, and we started the interview. I asked George about the test results.
“It’s my fault.” He said, “I have to figure out how to do better, and I don’t know how to do that yet.”
This moment of revelation, in which the Peace Corps dream is shattered, is a turning point in service. The volunteer either decides to quit Peace Corps, or they decide to accept the situation and make a new Peace Corps dream.
George had experienced the great difficulty of Peace Corps service in South Africa, but he was committed to the endeavor. He was adopting the philosophy of every Peace Corps volunteer who decides to stay, and finish their service.
If it isn’t difficult, it’s not worth doing.