there’s more than one way to peel a banana

Tuesday morning I took a taxi to an event in a neighboring village. When I say taxi you may think of a yellow sedan or a luxurious uber-like experience, but taxis in South Africa are typically beat up rickety vans with four rows of seating. I have my own personal hierarchy of preference when it comes to choosing where to sit. Window seats are first class, preferably in the first row behind the taxi driver, but if unavailable the second or third will do. The fourth and last row is death row. You’re forced to sit four across, squished like a can of sardines. Should your unfortunate fate lead you to sit in the back row, an end seat is preferable. The middle seat is always undesirable although often unavoidable. Riding shotgun is also a decent option but means you’re responsible for counting taxi fare, which has challenged my basic math skills on multiple occasions.

On this particular morning, I boarded the taxi and sat on the end of the first row. There was a middle-aged man sitting to my right in a khaki vest reading the paper before the taxi filled and left the rank. He appeared to be returning home after a trip to the cash and carry having stocked up on the essentials — toilet paper, eggs, mealie meal… and a bag of bananas. Half-way through our journey he takes a banana out of the bag. Personally I always peel from the stem, so when I saw him holding the banana ‘upside down’ I thought, “he’s holding it the wrong way?” *mental eye roll* But low and behold there he was, just a man with his midday banana, peeling from the end opposite the stem! I didn’t think it could be done, and after watching him I realized his approach was equally, if not more, efficient than mine. And so then and there I learned a valuable lesson — there’s more than one way to peel a banana — or skin a cat, as they say.

Today marks nine months, since I’ve been in South Africa. Time has a funny way of passing by both quickly and slowly at the same time. Often times I question what it is that I’m doing here, as large portions of my service have been spent binge watching TV series from my hard drive — Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Grey’s Anatomy, Prison Break S1 (v important — if you have seasons two through five, hmu). Needless to say, I’ve fallen into a few alternative universes from Kings Landing to Seattle Grace. South Africa on the other hand has felt progressively less like an alternative universe. The first three months of Peace Corps is spent orienting volunteers during what we refer to as Pre-Service Training. This covers off on all the basics from language and culture to HIV technical skills. I came into this experience with minimal expectations and as such spent the first few weeks in a state of confusion. The simple things alluded me. How do I bucket bathe? How do you clean dishes without running water? How do I hand wash my clothes efficiently (still working on this one, but a soak and swish has been doing the trick so far!)? I think the physical aspects of service are often what people find the most jarring, most of which in my case are related to the fact that I lack running water. I use a wheelbarrow and two 25L jugs and frequent the borehole up the road. If I’m lucky, there’s only a few people in line ahead of me to fetch water. On the off chance that the water truck delivers on Thursday, I praise the powers that be for saving me the extra arm workout. I bathe, wash my dishes, clean my clothes, and even go to the bathroom — all in a bucket. Living is more labor intensive, but I’ve adjusted. The chores that were confusing at first are now second nature to a certain extent.

Nine months ago I wrote down what I thought was the phonetic spelling of the names of some of our language and cultural facilitators my first week in South Africa. I remember my anxiety as I would approach them struggling to remember never mind pronounce their names. Now when I meet someone new, a Zama, Thulani, or Nqobile is as easy to remember as a John or Sarah. I even have my own Zulu name, ‘Zinhle,’ by which most people in my community know me. That’s all to say that in the past nine months I’ve made some progress, but there’s still (of course) room to grow.

As volunteers, we aspire to integrate. Our first three months of service, the amount of time we can spend away from site is limited. This period is dedicated to building relationships and setting down roots in our community. We’re not on a 10-day service trip. We’re here for two years, so wanting to feel at home in our respective villages makes sense; being a part of our community is ideal. While I may have mastered bucket bathing, I don’t yet feel like I fit in, and that’s been a struggle. Whether it be cultural differences that I find trying or barriers others perceive, forming deeper relationships has been a bit of a challenge.

Regardless of how I view my identity in the states, here — especially in my community — my privilege is salient. It’s unavoidable. Even before I open my mouth — my skin complexion, my race, my hair — privilege. My nationality and ‘Americanness’ — privilege. The fact that I speak fluent English — privilege. My education — privilege. Even just my being here, taking two years out of my life without salary, is a privilege. And that’s just the start of where my privilege begins.

I would consider my family middle class. I’m a first-generation college student, and both of my parents are blue collar workers. Growing up there were families who I perceived to have more than mine, who took vacations more frequently or drove nicer cars. Like many, I’ve always been fixated on what I don’t have instead of what I do. College was next level. I attended university with kids whose parents donated libraries or owned their own airport. I was hyper-aware (and admittedly ashamed at the time) of my socio-economic class in addition to other aspects of my identity that I felt didn’t quite measure up.

Now I look back, and I’m ashamed of having been ashamed. My lens has shifted. In a lot of ways, it took being here to recognize that I am privileged beyond measure.

Poverty in South Africa looks differently from what I expected. Before this experience I shared the same ignorance of many who think of Africa singularly as a country instead of a continent. Ironically, Africa is in fact the continent with the most countries, rich in culture and diversity. Originally when I thought of poverty in ‘Africa,’ I mentally played a Save the Children ad — half naked toddlers with distended stomachs in the middle of clay laden villages. While I didn’t go into Peace Corps with the expectation of ’saving the world,’ I was guilty of problematic thinking — from hints of a white savior complex to fetishizing international poverty. Combatting these mindsets is still a work in progress.

I have electricity. My local high school has a computer lab equipped with internet. Many in my community have a phone; some have smart phones. Down the dirt road from my house you’ll find a BMW parked in the yard. Kids in my village run to the tuck shop to buy Nik Naks with rand they’ve solicited from community members. South Africans are notorious for their smart appearance — clothes are pressed, and women wipe dust off their shoes after boarding the taxi. Me on the other hand, I’m often times dusty, unironed, or both. My nicest dresses here were $10 at H&M, and I take public transportation to and from work. But privilege nor poverty can be measured solely by evaluating one’s appearance or material items. Poverty has appropriately been redefined from just measuring income to including lack of access to opportunities and resources.

I’m afforded private health care by the Peace Corps Medical Office in Pretoria. In the event of a medical emergency that couldn’t be handled in country, I would be flown home to the States. If I need medication, I don’t question whether or not I’ll have access to it. I can move between spaces within South Africa. I travel frequently to Pretoria. I’m able to take vacation — a privilege others don’t have. I am constantly checking my privilege, the benefits of which I’m reminded of in ways big and small. Yesterday I had a conversation with my neighbor who was tired from fetching water:

Z: “Sawubona, unjani?”
S: “Ngikhathele. Ngiyoke amanazi.”
Z: “Eish! You should have waited for the water truck to come on Thursday!”
S: “Ay no man, that water is dirty. It’s okay for washing, but that’s it. Do you drink it?”
Z: “Yebo — I have a water filter, and if I’m cooking I boil the water.”
S: “Ay — you’re too clever boiling the water. But me, I have to save on electricity.”

Even using electricity freely is a privilege I hadn’t yet considered. But isn’t that the reality of privilege — being able to ignore things that people who lack said privilege can’t? Another privilege I haven’t in the past taken into consideration but for which I am most grateful is my education. I always took going to school for granted. I prayed for snow days in the winter, hawking the local news for a list of school closures — shuddering when they’d skip over Chesterfield and move straight to Cumberland County. Education affords opportunity. It’s a, if not the, way out of poverty. But in my village, like in many places, students face insurmountable challenges receiving the education they deserve. I am more grateful than I can express for the teachers, mentors, and opportunities I’ve had throughout my schooling in addition to the extracurricular activities outside of the classroom in which I was involved, all of which required resources — a teacher who took on added responsibility outside of school, a budget, a space where the meeting, performance, game, etc. could be held.

While the two are not mutually exclusive, as of late I have given a lot of thought to which differences I experience are cultural and which are socio-economic. At the end of the day, a lot of the tension points I’ve had throughout service I don’t believe are unique to South Africa. This country has a large wealth disparity, but there’s a wealth disparity in the US as well. I haven’t had the privilege of working with many individuals or communities that fall below the poverty line in the States. But if I was working in a school that was fed by lower income neighborhoods, I suspect I would witness and experience a lot of the same issues I see here.

I cannot ignore my privilege. At every turn, it’s in my face. And if it’s in my face, it’s most likely in other peoples’ faces too. I can’t hide it. The truth is as much as I want to integrate, my existence here is impermanent. At the end of the day, I am just one phone call and a 14 hour flight away from returning to the comforts of home. So I’m working on accepting that I won’t be a part of this community in the seamless way I had originally idealized, and that’s okay. I acknowledge that my privilege affects how others perceive me and that expecting people to overlook or ignore my privilege is both unfair and unrealistic. One thing I’ve learned being here — is that both comparison and expectation are detrimental to happiness. Coming to terms with how things are instead of how I expected them to be is a step in the right direction. I continue to try and find a place in my community, not necessarily where I fit in, but where I feel most comfortable. And in the meantime, I aim to do no harm, check my privilege, and keep an open mind to differences — always remembering that there’s more than one way to peel a banana.

The content of this post is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the South African Government.