Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the African continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around Africa (and the world!). This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from South Africa.
Matthew Wolfert – Age 24
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Wisconsin.
What country and program do you serve in?
I am a PCV in South Africa’s Schools and Community Resource Project (SCRP). As a SCRP volunteer, I teach 4th and 5th grade English at a rural school. I also teach 4th grade math and a reading intervention group in English. Besides teaching, I’m working on organizing a school/community library and extra-curricular activities to build English skills amongst the learners and teachers.
What is your lifestyle like as a PCV?
My site is absolutely beautiful! I live in a small agricultural community made up of about 100 families. We’re tucked away at the base of a mountain with two waterfalls. During the summer, it can get pretty hot (about 100 degrees) and during the winter, it is usually around the freezing point if not below. Sometimes, it even snows! Since the community I live in is small and far from the main road (about 20 km) there is one taxi to my town a day. There’s one gravel road that leads to my village, which makes transportation a bit of a challenge. It usually arrives around 8am. If you miss it, you have to wait until the next day to leave.
I live with an energetic host family. There is a gogo (grandmother), her 32-year old son, and his three boys (ages 5, 9, and 12). The family also has 6 greyhounds, which they raise and sell for racing and hunting. I live separately from the family in a small hut. It has plastered walls and a Terri gated metal roof. My house gets ridiculously hot in the summer and stays very cold in the winter, due to its build. Last year, the community received electricity, so I am lucky enough to have electricity. Although we have electricity, we aren’t dependant on it completely. I only use electricity to cook with a hotplate, boil water to bathe, and to charge my computer. We have outdoor plumbing, so I must go outside to fetch water.
My daily routine looks something like this: I wake up around 5:00 and eat breakfast (eggs, fruit, oatmeal, coffee, or tea). Then I get ready and leave for school around 6:30. I arrive at school around 7:00 and socialize with teachers and learners (greetings are a very important part of isiZulu culture). Around 7:30 I begin teaching. I am at school until 3:30-4:00. Then, I walk home, cook supper (usually rice, soya mince, and a vegetable from my garden). After I eat, I play soccer or cards with the children who usually visit me. Finally, I quickly bathe (if we have water) and go to bed around 8:00.
What is South Africa like?
South Africa is a very diverse country. From its landscapes, history, people, 12 official languages, religions, and economic prosperity. I live in the province called KwaZulu Natal (KZN). It is in the upper northeast part of the country. KZN boarders the Indian Ocean, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho, has great game parks, and the Drakensburg Mountains. KZN is home to the isiZulu people, but there are also many people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, British, Dutch, and German decent living here, too. I have eaten some of the best Indian food in my shopping town!
Although South Africa is diverse, I feel there is still an underlining division of people, which is a wound still healing from Apartheid. It is 21-years after Apartheid ended, but people still give me that look or make a comment when they see me getting on a public taxi, walking on the road near my village, or discover I’m teaching at “a black school.” It is difficult to describe, because it is so engrained in society. However, along with the negatives, Apartheid is over and I really enjoy it when I see all types of people being empowered to rise up and knock down racial stereotypes.
Lastly, I want to talk about the economic prosperity in South Africa. In technical terms, I live in an informal settlement, or village. There are stone and mud huts with grass-thatched roofs, at risk youth (orphans), and a government programs for families that need assistance with food and medical care. In the village, we speak isiZulu and are very cultural. We live minimally. In towns and cities, there are many restaurants (at least one KFC is in almost every town!), shopping malls, car dealerships, taxis, and buses. In bigger cities, like Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town, there are huge, multi-level shopping malls, metro-rail systems, Uber taxis, and so on. South Africa is a mixture of 1st and 3rd world, and it’s a challenge I encounter every day.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges?
The children are, by far, the most rewarding part of my service. No matter the time of day, I always have little visitors wanting to talk and play me. When I walk to and from school, they run over to join me. They are so curious! Many have never interacted on a personal level with a person with white skin. They grab my hands, touch my hair, and look at my blue eyes with curiosity. With most children, I usually try to speak in English first and translate to isiZulu if they don’t understand. English is a necessary skill in South Africa and I wish to help them the most I can with their English skills. Also, it is always a great feeling to find letters and drawings under my door left by children reading, “Uncle Matthew, We love you!”
Peace Corps has many rewarding aspects, but it is also very challenging. For me, I don’t personally experience many physical challenges. Instead, I face emotional and mental challenges that I believe many PCVs face. However, the greatest challenge I face is the economic disparity I face every day.
Like mentioned before, South Africa is a mixture of first world, third world, and everything in between. Peace Corps South Africa allots PCVs a monthly stipend similar to the amount of money people in our community receive, so we live and experience life as what others do in our community. In US dollars, I receive approximately $230 a month to pay for electricity, my cell phone, food, transportation, and other little things. When I don’t leave the village, this amount is perfectly ok. However, when I go into town to buy groceries, stop at the pharmacy, go to the post office, and so forth, the $230 goes quickly! For example, I spend approximately $180 in food, $25 in transport, $8 for my phone, and I have about $20 to save for postage, vacation travel, and transport to meet other PCVs for a weekend. It is difficult to wrap my mind around the economic contrasts. Another example is to compare and contrast families who live in my village. In my village, although it is small, it has about half of the families living in western style houses with tiled roofing, indoor plumbing, owning new cars, and flashing their newest gadges, such as laptops, iPads, and tablets. On the other hand, there are families that still live without electricity, live in houses made of mud walls, stones, and thatched roofs, and are struggling from poverty’s effects.
It becomes extremely difficult as a PCV in South Africa mostly when I go on vacation to bigger cities, such as Durban, Pretoria, and Cape Town. These cities have huge shopping malls, restaurants, pubs and clubs, cafes, metro-rails and bus systems, and movie theaters. Within a day, one could easily spend close to their full monthly stipend by shopping at one of the multilevel malls, eating at gourmet restaurants, seeing the newest movie, and using Uber or private taxis to commute. I mean, something as special as a soccer jersey may cost around a quarter of my monthly stipend! When you’re on vacation, it is difficult not to think, “How is this right?”
Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I didn’t really know what specifically I was getting myself into when I left for staging. I knew I was going to go to South Africa to teach for 27-months and live within a rural community, but that’s about it. I didn’t know how much I would grow as a person, how much professional experience I would gain, how much difference I would make in people’s lives just by showing up at school each day, and how much people would honor my dedication to serve in their country for more than 2 years. I have been serving as PCV for eight months and my expectations of my service have already been surpassed by my experiences in my community.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I had been interest in Peace Corps since my sophomore year of college. I had met a returned PCV and she told me about her experiences in eastern Africa. After reading many blogs and talking with recruiters, I decided that when I graduated from college, I would like to become an education volunteer. As an education major, I felt that I would have the skills and experiences needed to successfully teach as a PCV. During the beginning of my senior year of school I applied to be a PCV. In July, after playing the waiting game all PCVs played when they applied to PC, I left to start volunteering in South Africa.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. government?
I feel like Peace Corps is a worthwhile program for the U.S. government because, volunteers all over the world are breaking the American stereotypes others learn from media. Not all images of America are positive. In fact, many people initially feel inferior to me being American, but once they get to know me, interact with me, observe me work and live amongst them, their perception of Americans change.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to PC or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
For people thinking about applying to PC or getting ready for staging, I would say don’t expect anything specific from your experience, keep and open mind, and remain a team player. Before joining Peace Corps, I was very independent. I did not like to ask others for help if I did not need to on projects. As a PCV, I have learned to depend on others and ask for help (even for little things, such as a ride to town, help with learning language, and adapting to living independently in a village). You must be willing to challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone, whatever that may be.
Many people think Peace Corps is only for white, Ivy-League young people. What has your experience been like?
I came to South Africa with 34 others in my cohort. We have a very diverse group of people, and I am proud of that, because I feel that we represent America well. We have a handful of volunteers over the age of 50, we have volunteers who identify within the LGBTQ community, we have 3 married couples (one whose partner is in America), two volunteers who immigrated to America, and volunteers from all across America. I feel like many people want to apply to Peace Corps, but there is a certain type of person who actually applies and dedicates over 2 years of their life to helping others in a requested country. This person doesn’t need to be a young white person from an Ivy-League school. I believe it’s a person that believes in humanity, the idea of paying it forward, who looks for the good in others, and someone who is up for a challenge of living abroad away from your friends family and friends, and a life-long learner.
Any plans for Post-Peace C0rps?
I haven’t thought too far in advance about after PC. However, I plan to return to America and continue teaching in an inner-city, urban setting. I am also keeping my eyes out for various response volunteer positions in the field of education.
Want to read more about Matthew’s Peace Corps experience in South Africa? Check out his blog!