Peace Corps Volunteers: Goodbye, South Africa

A fragile hope

It has finally come to an end. I’ve said my goodbyes. I’ve packed my things. I’ve left Tshamahansi. My time as a Peace Corps Volunteer came to an end on Friday, 19 October 2007.

After the completion of a HIV Testing Drive in the village of Tshamahansi, I felt as if I’d done what I needed (and wanted) to do in South Africa. The Department of Health was so impressed by the results of the testing drives that it is planning on holding some more HIV-testing campaigns in different parts of the district, using ours as a model. I gave them some advice, but unfortunately I won’t be around to help them with the new campaigns. It’s better, though – they need to be able to do it on their own and I think they will be able to. I’m delighted to hear that my departure does not signal the end of efforts in Tshamahansi. I came to South Africa hoping to instill sustainable change in the schools. Instead, I instilled sustainable change in the village. I couldn’t be happier.

Starting on 6 September, my group of Peace Corps Volunteers – those of us who had arrived in country together on 18 August 2005 -were allowed to COS (Close-of-Service) and leave South Africa. While most of my friends were departing for other destinations to move on to the next step in their lives, I instead returned to Tshamahansi and stay in the village during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan was easier this year than in the past, and I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Mokopane (my local town) with a Muslim family of Indians, the Bhikhoos, who were so welcoming and treated me like a member of the family. I was able to spend time going to the Mosque, breaking the fast with them, and doing taraweeh prayers at night.

Eventually, on 13 October 2007, exactly two years to the date of my swearing-in, I left Tshamahansi and Mokopane. Leaving the village itself was not very difficult, but there were definitely some people in the village that I am incredibly sad to be leaving behind. First is the committee I had worked with, for over a year, who had been so dedicated and worked so tirelessly, and who I saw as the truest testament to my Peace Corps Service. Second, and more important, was the family that I became a part of. The Baloyi family has been my family since March 2006, and I will miss them terribly. They opened up their home to me. They treated me as an adult and they gave me just the perfect combination of support and independence. Some host families might give a volunteer enough support but not enough independence. Others might give enough independence but not enough support. I was fortunate enough to receive just the right amount of both.

Whenever I returned home from a weekend or week away, my host mother Esther would receive me with a smile and “Ha amukela!” (we welcome you) or “Welcome home!” And whenever I left, she would say, “Mi famba kahle” (Go well) or “Have a nice journey.” So when Esther walked me to the combie as I was leaving for the last time, and Esther said “famba kahle”, I realized that I wouldn’t get to hear “ha amukela” again, or for a long time at least, and it saddened me. My entire host family – my parents Ben and Esther Baloyi, my brothers James, Dennis, and Tumisho Baloyi, my sisters Susan Baloyi and Patience Ngobeni, and our housekeeper “Auntie Christine” – I will miss them all. Indeed, they are what I will miss most about Tshamahansi.

Now I am about to leave not only Tshamahansi, but the country of South Africa. For over two years this has been my home. As with any home, my feelings about it are conflicted. I simultaneously love it and will miss it, but I am also extremely frustrated by it and can not wait to leave. I feel these things at the same time. My thoughts about South Africa are so complex, and so conflicted, that I can’t really express them.

But I will say this: there is so much potential here. I’ve mentioned before that the youth I’ve come across offer the best hope I’ve seen for this country. But, as I’ve also mentioned before, it’s a fragile hope. What happened to the youth of 1976? It’s what I’ve noticed over and over and over again during my two years here. With the first inklings of power, things change.

Coming from a background of such poverty, people tasting some sort of power or authority for the first time wildly grasp at it. They indulge with their newfound money, having spent their lives in poverty and finally breaking free. But here is where the problems start. Caught between two worlds – traditional culture and society on one hand and “modern/Western” society on the other – people choose to embrace the worst aspects of both. They hold on to some archaic cultural practices and opinions, but disregard others.

One of the first things to go is the wonderful African practice of ubuntu. Ubuntu means that we are all the same, that I cannot succeed if we all do not succeed. It’s a wonderful equalizer, where everyone is supposed to look out for each other. In two years, I have very rarely seen ubuntu of any kind coming from people with authority – municipal workers, teachers, nurses, local officials, administrators. When ubuntu and the other positive aspects of traditional culture are lost, what takes their place are aspects of Western culture. But the aspects which are chosen – materialism, greed, selfishness, a constant desire for more – are harmful, especially when they are not coupled with the more positive Western values of responsibility and accountability. What I’ve seen is the worst of two cultures come together, while the best of these cultures is lost.

In the large “Westernized” cities and in the rural “traditional” villages, things look more positive. I’ve found some of the nicest, most genuine people I’ve ever met in remote rural villages like Gonani and Jakkalskuil. Likewise, in the cities there are plenty of hard-working, responsible people. It’s in the in-between places—the small towns, the “locations”, places like Tshamahansi and Mokopane, that things don’t look so great. There’s a reason that there’s such a lack of service delivery in underdeveloped areas of the country and that is because the people in power, the teachers and nurses and administrators, have yet to find a good balance between cultures. There are always exceptions – and I’ve met quite a few – but this is the pattern I’ve seen. And unfortunately, that lack of ubuntu, the lack of responsibility, has been seen more commonly in the very peaks of government recently. Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, the list goes on.

Part of me worries that things are going to get worse before they get better, and the most cynical parts of my psyche expect South Africa to turn into Zimbabwe in a few years. Zimbabwe was also very successful for its first 10 years and Mugabe used to be the darling of the Western community, an eloquent anti-apartheid speaker, a reconciler, a liberation hero. Will we see the same mismanagement in South Africa, the same deterioration? Is that why Mbeki is so silent on the Zimbabwe crisis?

In all honesty, I don’t think it will get that bad. Rural schools are churning out undereducated, subservient kids, and they will continue to. But the same selfish teachers and administrators who don’t care about rural children’s education are sending their own children to private schools, and so these children will grow up with a real opportunity to be successful and make a change. Slowly but surely, there will be more previously disadvantaged children doing wonderful things with their lives.

In his book “Cry, The Beloved Country,” South African author Alan Paton writes:

“Because the white man has power, we too want power, he said. But when a black man gets power, when he gets money, he is a great man if he is not corrupted… Some of us think when we have power, we shall revenge ourselves on the white man who has had power, and because our desire is corrupt, we are corrupted, and the power has no heart in it… I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.”

Alan Paton was writing about apartheid at the time, but the sentiments echoed in his work are a mirror of my own sentiments. Things, it seems, have not changed all that much.

I’ve always believed that South Africans have enormous potential, and I have seen them rise up to the occasion when needed. This is especially true of those determined youth from my committee, for who I see great things. But as Nelson Mandela has said, South Africans are not yet free. They have freedom, but their psychological and cultural chains are still binding them. Only when teachers and nurses and administrators and local officials truly live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others will this country truly be free. Mandela thought it might take years or generations to recover from South Africa’s horrors. I think generations hits closer to the mark.

Where will South Africa go from here? I can’t say. In much the same way that I can’t say where America will go from here. Now, I won’t be here to witness South Africa’s changes but I will be watching from afar, curious as to what happens next and truly, for the sake of the many wonderful South Africans who have enriched my life, hoping for the best.

Omar Ahmed is a former US Peace Corps volunteer, having recently served in Tshamahansi, South Africa. An extended version of this post and a chronology of Omar’s experiences can be found at his blog, Omar in Africa (

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