One of the things I have struggled with since we returned (now over a month ago!) from our consolidation in South Africa has been patience. This has been an exclusively internal struggle as outwardly I have expressed only a happy zen-like persona, mostly because I know the struggle is exclusively my own. It also, apparently, is a completely normal aspect of the integration phase of being a PCV.
Right now, I have a number of “homework” assignments from the Peace Corps office to help me get to know my community better. Two weeks ago, I found myself expressing frustration in my journal. I did not understand how I knew so few people in my village, why I was having so much trouble finding the answers to my questions about different aspects of village life, and how I was going to “work” everyday but doing almost nothing while there. It literally felt like nothing had happened since I visited South Africa, like I was less a part of the community than I had been before I left.
Over the past two weeks, I have forced myself to become more outgoing, to speak more often and to more people. My friends and family back home will laugh at the idea of me having to force myself to speak more often, as I have always been known as a chatty one, however, here I have found myself more reticent. Living in a new culture with a new language is hard.
I regularly speak English with only three people in my entire village: the chief, the oldest of my brothers living at home, and my counterpart. While I love learning and being able to speak Sesotho, it is exhausting to think so hard to communicate effectively. As a result, I find myself doing a huge amount of something I have always struggled with in the English speaking world: listening.
In English, I have the ability to multitask, being aware of multiple conversations occurring around me at the same time, while also participating like an intelligent person in at least one of those conversations. In Sesotho, I cannot listen and think at the same time. In order to speak in a way people understand, I have to think. Therefore, I mostly listen. And, generally, I mostly understand albeit not completely.
Lately, however, I have forced myself to ask more questions and to engage with more people. I have carried on conversations with people while walking to and from work at both the community building and other villages. I have been more aggressive about asking people to help me spell their names and taking notes during conversations, simply explaining that I have to write things down to remember them because Sesotho is new to me. I have learned more names in the last two weeks than the previous two months! If you think remembering names is hard in your native tongue, imagine learning names when they sound like nothing you have ever heard before!
Last Friday was the mother and child outreach clinic in a neighboring village. Although I have stopped by clinic days the last two months, this time, I arrived and immediately told one of the women I wanted to help. As a result, I spent the entire morning weighing children and making notes in the medical books. When intakes were done, I was left with nothing to do. Uncertain and Quiet Beth reappeared briefly as I stood idly in the shade wondering how else I could help but not seeing any of the leadership I knew. She did not stay long, however, and I was soon chatting away with one of the immunization nurses, learning more about medical services throughout Butha Buthe, and promising to help again next month.
I have been going to the local church here for over a month now. I work to learn the songs and try to understand bits of the messages, but a huge part of my attendance is an attempt to be part of the community here. Most weeks, I have walked home with either my counterpart or alone. This Sunday, however, my counterpart was out of town. As I prepared to walk home alone, some of the teenage girls came over and asked me to walk with them. Despite it being out of my way, I agreed and had a lovely time chatting with them in a mix of English and Sesotho as we strolled.
At work, I have been speaking up more often. I have asked for specific information and the opportunity to meet with specific members of the community. And the response has been tremendously positive. I was really concerned about how the days would go for most of last week and this week because my counterpart has been out of town. I was worried that even less would get done and that I would be biting my nails from boredom at work. Instead, I have successfully led a meeting with some of the members of my organization and gotten to know people much more than I had over the previous two months.
Perhaps, having to go it alone for ten days, with my greatest support out of town, has been the catalyst I needed to take these steps on my own. My counterpart is a wonderful young woman and incredibly helpful in every way. I was dreading impending loneliness with her heading out of town. Instead, having her gone has forced me to find connection with other people and in other places. I have had to test my language skills and find ways to explain myself when people do not understand.