That one time I was homesick. And how I got over it.

The last couple months have thrown me quite a few emotional ups and downs. Starting in late May, I found myself irritable, unhappy and oddly discontent. I found this unhappiness a bit confusing because I couldn’t really put a finger on why I felt that way- it was more like I had an annoying itch under my skin that wasn’t going away.

Before you travel abroad, well-wishing people always give PowerPoint presentations and shove pamphlets in your hands describing the emotional cycle of culture shock and disillusionment.  They all talk about the valleys and the hilltops and discuss strategies on how to cope with homesickness, culture shock, etc. With my work for Valpo’s Office of International Programs, I’ve even been that person! So yeah, I’ve heard it all many times- only problem is that I’ve never really experienced it.

I’ve never been homesick before. And I normally am pretty good at staying happy and present being wherever I may be at the time. Maybe it’s because my parents sent me away to summer camp when I was small or maybe it has more to do with the fact that I’m just a pretty independent person, but yeah, I don’t get homesick.  Sure, I miss my family and friends, and I really do place a lot of importance and value on the physical presence of my loved ones in my life, but I guess I just don’t need to see them every day, week or even month to be reminded of that.

Went away to college? Nope, not homesick. Studied abroad in Namibia for four months? C’mon guys, it wasn’t that long. Spent a summer working in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee? I was having too much fun in the woods to miss home.

But I guess, this time around, it’s been different. My life here is pretty normal. I’m not having grand and new cultural experiences everyday. I’m not climbing mountains every other afternoon. And I’m definitely not sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated and continuously busy like I was at Valpo. So, over the past couple months, I got homesick. I guess I should have been expecting it, but it took me some time to recognize the symptoms. Crankiness? Yep. Unhappy? Sure. Spending way too much time looking through old pictures from home on my computer? Yes. Pretending with Sarah that the characters from the TV show Friends were actually our friends? Well, maybe I shouldn’t even admit to that one.

In all seriousness, those few weeks were pretty tough on me emotionally. I was approaching the five-month mark and that was uncharted territory- I’ve never been outside the US and away from family for that long before. My time at school began to drag as exams started and our days were filled with only grading, proctoring exams or babysitting the younger students while they “studied”. I was struggling to find a sense of community and began to doubt my friendships and connections here in South Africa. Back home, my friends were finishing up semesters of college, grad school, and internships, and I didn’t like that their reunions didn’t include me. At one point, I even made a Valposad playlist. Pathetic, I know.

One thing that I love about South Africa is its vibrant culture that is so full of energy and passion, and the kindness that I see in its people that gives me hope for its future. However, as June came around, the problems of South Africa began to overshadow all the good the country has to offer in my mind. Confronted daily with the debilitating problems so present in this place and the inefficiency of a government that has done little to improve the lives of its people, I began to lose hope. I couldn’t stand it anymore- I could feel the weight of so much that was going so poorly in South Africa and it made me weary. Then, Sarah and I experienced firsthand the violent crime that plagues this country. Our car window was smashed in while we were driving in Joburg and Sarah’s purse was stolen- it was terrifying. I was already tired and homesick and frustrated and then this happened. For a while after, I was constantly afraid. I know these things can happen anywhere in the world, but they happened to me here. So, sadly, it changed me. It changed the way I saw my life and my role in South Africa. Throughout June, I learned to adjust and cope with my nerves and my fear, but I was just coping, not moving on.

Then the second term ended and sitting before me was a whole three weeks off from school. Let me tell you, I was ready. I needed to get out of the Vaal and away from my frustrations and fear. Relief came in the form of a trip exploring the Eastern and Western Capes of South Africa with my very dear friend from home, Katie Kirsch. I saw again the beauty of the land and the people who make up South Africa. I met wonderful new friends who welcomed me immediately into their communities and I found peace. I felt safe as I walked down both new and familiar streets and felt myself shedding my fears and doubts with every step I took. I talked for hours with a friend who knows what a sunset over Lake Michigan looks like, who knows how good a draught from Kalamazoo’s Bells Brewery can be, who also knows where to find the best live music in Chicago, and most of all, who knows and loves me enough to give me a kick in the rear so that my cranky and scared self could gain some perspective and move on.

I needed to realize that all my experiences, both good and bad, are part of my life here in South Africa, and really, are part of my life anywhere I go. I needed to throw away my feelings of entitlement and realize that my momentary struggles are nothing compared to what many people around the world feel every day. My South African friends all have their own stories of pain and loss, but they continue to have a constant joy that is so powerful. What should allow me to view this life any differently? In a way, it’s strange because I can choose to leave this situation at any time- because of my privilege of being a middle class American, my life back home is comparatively safe, easy, and comfortable and if I wanted it, I could easily run back to it. However, I am blessed in that I can choose to live somewhere else and with that choice, comes the need for perspective, for empathy and for humility.

These last few weeks have shown me how much I love love LOVE living in South Africa. I am enriched and made better because I am lucky enough to live here. Yes, sometimes it’s still frustrating and it’s not always easy, but that’s just part of life. And I am so glad that my life is here and now in this beautiful country that I am blessed to call my home.

Prayers for Madiba.

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Last Thursday was Nelson Mandela’s birthday and people all over the country gave their 67 minutes of community service to honor and commemorate his life and work for this country. As his health continues to worsen, South Africa is facing the possibility of a future without this significant man who brought freedom and unity to such a divided county. Everywhere, signs of support and love for dear Madiba can be found. While I was exploring Cape Town a couple weeks ago, I came across this prayer at St. Michael’s Anglican Church. I found its words full of truth and comfort, and I hope that they ring true in any heart that feels pain during this difficult time.

Scripture says that Rachel wept for the loss of her children and could not be consoled. Yet it also tells us that you, Lord Jesus, who wept at the death of your dear friend Lazarus, promise to be with us, and stay with us, to the end of time.

Thank you that you who have walked the long valley of the shadow will never forsake us, neither in life nor in death – and your everlasting arms embrace us always, in this life and the life to come.

May your strengthening presence known to all who love Madiba.

Fill them with your courage and the gift of trusting faith.

May they be able to bring their grief to your presence.

May they know the truth of your promise that ‘blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

And so we bring our prayers to you:

Lord Jesus Christ, you are a God who knows vulnerability, weakness and frailty.

You are Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Lord of life and death.

Your power sustains us in life and death.

May your arms of love enfold Madiba with compassion, comfort and the conviction that you will never forsake him but that you will grant him eternal healing and relief from pain and suffering.

And may your blessing rest upon Madiba now and always. Grant him, we pray, peace at the last.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

This prayer was adapted by the church from Archbishop Thabo’s visit with Mandela’s family on 25 June 2013.

it’s been THAT long?

 

I realize that my last post was in March. THAT’S FOUR MONTHS AGO! Whoa, sorry guys. But hey, you all really shouldn’t be surprised, this is me we’re talking about. Ok, so since March, a LOT has happened. Term 2 of school came and went, and now we’re just about to start the second week of Term 3 tomorrow. I’m still teaching Natural Science to my grade 8s and now we’ve moved on to the solar system. Really exciting, trust me.

In bullet points (otherwise, this will turn into the world’s loooooongest blog post), here’s what my last four months have included:

 

  • Road trip through KwaZulu-Natal with my good friend and fellow Fulbrighter, McKenzie Snow. Started at Splashy Fen, a great but very wet and muddy music festival that was on a farm in the mountains. And then the next couple weeks were full of hiking in the Drakensburg, going up the Sani Pass into Lesotho, grabbing a pint at the Nottingham Road Brewery and getting to Durban where we were chilled on the beach and ate lots of delicious curry.
Standing in Lesotho after coming over the Sani Pass!

Standing in Lesotho after coming over the Sani Pass!

  • It’s become winter down here and it actually is really cold! I know, I know, it’s no Michigan, but it does get down to the 30s and 40s at night and we often wake up to frost.  Really, though, what makes it seem so unbearable is that I am cold ALL DAY EVERY DAY.  Insulation and central heating aren’t really things here, so it’s super cold indoors. All the time. Our apartment with its huge windows and tile floors is an icebox. Trust me, it’s cold.
  • Ethiopia! All of the Fulbrighters on the continent got to meet up in Addis Ababa for a few days to have a Mid-Year Conference. Imagine around 80 young adults who are all somewhat nerdy but also super passionate about Africa in one room talking about leadership, ethics and our common experiences for a few days- and then add some dancing and lots of laughter. Spending time with the other Fulbrighters was great, but nothing compared to actually getting to be in Addis. I’ve wanted to go to Ethiopia since first taking Global Perspectives with Professor Schaefer back at Valpo my freshman year. It was such a great experience!  Sarah and I were able to go down a few days early and got to explore the city and a bit of the local culture- beautiful historic churches, some great jazz music, lots of delicious food, and even more coffee!

Sarah, Zach and I with our wonderful Ethiopian guides and friends.

  • One of our grade 8 students won a National Poetry competition put on by the US Embassy to celebrate MLK Jr Day. Mpho is a powerful and gifted young girl who has a lot to say about the future of her country and her role in that. It was amazing to see her excitement and the pride of her family and friends.
  • I started a Science Club at my school with one of the other teachers. As part of the Fulbright grant, we as teaching assistants are expected to do a side project in addition to our teaching responsibilities. It can really be anything we want and doesn’t need to involve our school. Before coming to SA, I was planning on looking outside my school and hoping to do some work with a local organization wherever I ended up staying. However, that option has not really been available to me due to the small town location of my placement, so I  have had to rethink my plans since my arrival. Looking at Riverside and the national science curriculum, the teachers have their hands and schedules full just trying to teach everything in the syllabus and there is little time for experiments, discussions about current discoveries and topics or any of the things that actually make science fun and applicable. Through our club, we’re trying to fill that gap. Science Club has had a slow start, mostly due to a lack of resources (chemicals are expensive!) and planning issues, but right now we’re gearing up for our weekend camp that will be taking place in September (I promise PROMISE to write a blog post once it happens. Serious).

    New friends up at Wits University in JHB!

    New friends up at Wits University in JHB!

  • Bushfire in Swaziland! Another awesome music festival, but this time I got to leave South Africa and enter another country!  The music itself was pretty great and I got to see a couple of the same groups that I had really liked from Splashy Fen.  This fest definitely had more of an international presence with a lot of Americans and Europeans attending- I saw more Chacos and Birkenstocks than the rest of my time here in SA put together!
  • I am amazed everyday with the incredible amount of kindness I see in this country. Our new friends have done everything from helping us fill our empty apartment with furniture, to changing our flat tires, to cooking us delicious local food, to instructing us on how to reset up our tent after it leaked for days in the pouring rain, to welcoming us into their homes, families and hearts. I love this country because I love the people who have touched my life here- whether that’s someone I see everyday or only had the pleasure of knowing for one short moment. I have learned so much about loving others from the love that I have received.
  • And lastly, just these past few weeks, I was able to travel with my very dear friend Katie Kirsch! It was so wonderful having someone from home here to share in this experience with me. After a few days hanging out in the Vaal, we headed to Tsitsikamma National Park down on the Indian Ocean and spent five days in the wild hiking the Otter Trail. It was breathtaking, literally. Cliffs, beaches, forests, mountain streams, whales, dolphins- we saw it all while scrambling up and down the rugged terrain. From there we traveled along the coast going from Port Elizabeth to the National Arts Fest in Grahamstown then to a couple small beach towns, Knysna and Wilderness, and we ended our travels with a week in Cape Town. Such an awesome time full of beautiful landscapes, great food and even better people that we were lucky enough to meet.
Just two girls from Kalamazoo at the bottom of Africa. No big deal.

Just two girls from Kalamazoo at the bottom of Africa. No big deal.

Ok, so I think that’s enough to bring you guys back up to speed. I know from all of that, my life must sound way more exciting than it actually is. Really, my life here is very normal- I get up, go to work, teach some kids, come home, run errands, go to the gym, hang out with friends, go to bed pretty early and then do it all again. Most days, I like the normalcy, makes it seem more like part of my “real-life”, if that makes any sense. Sometimes, the very fact that I live in South Africa hits me in the smallest of things- like that I’m just walking to the grocery store- but that I’m walking to Checkers instead of Pick n’ Pay because I know they have better apples and granola. “Whoaaaa, I live here.”

a broken car made complete: a lenten reflection

This past Saturday, I drove the hour up to Johannesburg to spend the day celebrating a friend’s birthday.  However, as I was driving my car (affectionately named the “Spacepod”) through the streets to meet my friend Zach for coffee before heading to the party, my car simply stopped working and refused to restart.  Instantly I became very nervous- I don’t know anything about cars, I don’t know how to go about getting cars fixed in South Africa, and I also happened to be completely stranded in the streets of one of the most dangerous cities in the world.  Normally, I feel very safe and comfortable in this new country I’ve made my home in for the next year, but this was not a moment where I felt happy in any way.  Even though everything was fine in the end- I called my insurance- they got me a tow truck, I called Zach- he came and waited with me for help to come, I was quite unnerved.  But within about an hour or so, I was sitting in the front seat of the tow truck heading back to the Vaal with my broken little car. Needless to say, I was bummmmmmed. I had a dead car with no idea how much it would cost to fix and I was leaving Joburg before getting to do any of the fun and exciting things I had planned. It would have been super easy to just give up and be grumpy- and I was, at first.

But, surprisingly enough, it wasn’t easy for me to remain upset. The ride back home through the city in the truck with it’s big huge windows was beautiful, the truck driver was incredibly nice and friendly, and we had such a good conversation on the ride back. Once we got to my apartment complex, we had to push the car into my spot, and even that was fun with the driver and our security guard of my apartment.  I was proud of myself for how I had handled the day and really felt mature, self-sufficient and confident in this country and my life here.

While discussing the day later with Zach, he commented, “Leave it to a midwesterner to find the silver lining”.  I laughed in response to this jokingly serious observation, but for some reason, I couldn’t get this simple statement out of my head.

It’s very true, I am often pegged as the optimist, the eternal believer of far-flung hopes and possibilities, the person who remains positive even when everything seems to go wrong.  Maybe this tendency can be linked back to the great Midwest, but I’m inclined to think it’s more than that.

As I found myself entering Holy Week, I began to interpret this experience in Joburg as another part of my Lenten journey.  I know that I seek value in all experiences, even those that are negative.  I don’t believe that sorrow and pain are good, but I do believe that good can come from such experiences. As Lent is coming to an end, these past weeks are meant to be a time to reflect on this exact truth- that there are always difficulties on the way to joy, that the journey to the cross is also the path to resurrection.  Times like these remind me of the peace and grace that can be found in brokenness, of the Easters that be found in all times and all places- even in the midst of Lent, in the failed electric circuit of my car, even in the busy streets of Johannesburg, South Africa.

This past weekend reminded me that my life is made whole in Christ- in all aspects of my life, even in a broken Spacepod.

Grade 8s, are you ready??

This past weekend, we took our grade 8s to camp. AND IT WAS SO MUCH FUN! We went to an adventure camp specific for school groups in a nature reserve somewhere on the outskirts of Pretoria (we think we might have made it into Limpopo province, but it was really unclear). Getting there involved a three hour long bus ride with waaaay too many students hyped up on energy drinks and sugar, but they entertained me and my fellow teacher, Mr. Zulu, with songs, laughter and stories during the ride. ImageThe camp was absolutely beautiful. It was located on a game reserve so it was completely normal for various wild animals, including peacocks, ostriches and antelope to just meander on by. Everywhere. By the pool, where we ate, outside our rooms. SO Amazing.

The kids were able to have tons of fun- including an outdoor obstacle course where they had to crawl through the mud and swing into a small pool of rather dirty water.  Many of our students were desperately afraid of water because they can’t really swim, but they still had a great time because, as my one student put it, “it made her face her fears”. Yay for learning life lessons at camp!

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it wasn’t only the kids who got to play in the dirt!

Throughout the rest of the weekend, we also got to go on two game drives (we saw giraffes and zebras!), sang lots of camp songs around a fire, played a HUGE prank on the students, which resulted in a giant pool party, practiced for the grade 8 concert that’s coming up in April, did a little archery, played some soccer and volleyball, and really just had a great time bonding with the students and other six teachers that went on the camp. Really, the camp experience was huge for me because I teach a grade 8 Natural Science class, which meant that one fourth of the kids on the camp were actually MY students.  It was so much fun getting to spend time with them outside of the classroom, just joking around and having fun. Even now, back at the school, my baby girls are still calling me mama and coming up and giving me hugs.  Precious, I know.

“Good Morning Class”

Dumela!

That’s “hello” in Sotho, the home language that’s most commonly spoken amongst my learners.  Over the last couple weeks, they’ve tried to teach me some Sotho, and the teachers are attempting the same with Zulu and Afrikaans. Needless to say, not much has stuck, but I can at least try to greet someone in all three languages. Hopefully, my own language learning will become more impressive as the months go by.

I have a lot to catch up on with this blog (I really shouldn’t be surprised at my inability to consistently write on this… haha).  With this post, I’ll begin by describing my school, since that’s really where I spend most of my time and energy. Maybe in a few more weeks, I’ll get around to talking about the rest of my life here, if we’re all lucky.

Riverside High School is a former Model C school, which basically means that during apartheid, it was a public school reserved entirely for white children and therefore received the highest level of funding and educational support. According to some of the teachers who have been there forever, it used to be the best school in all of the Vaal (the region where I live). Post-apartheid, the public school has been opened up to all learners and has now become integrated. However, due to the ever-present “white flight”, our school body of around 1000 learners is mostly black, with some Indian and Coloured (the term for people of mixed race here) learners in the mix. It is considered one of the best English medium schools in the area and supposedly the waiting list to get into the first year is quite long. However, the flight of the more privileged and wealthy learners over the last fifteen years has left the school struggling more and more to find adequate funding and resources for their many students. Public schools that are equal for all? Maybe not, South Africa.

That being said, Riverside High is a great school to work at and I am loving my experience here so far! The school is far more formal than I’m used to back in the states. The learners wear uniforms and address me as Ma’am or Ms. Kenyon. They can’t sit down in the class until I’ve let them do so and even the color of the pens they use in their class workbooks is highly regulated. Discipline is rather strict and every teacher has their own way of relating to the learners. Getting used to such a different teaching environment has definitely been an interesting adjustment.

During my first week at the school, I was immediately thrown into the mix and covered the five classes of a science/math teacher who was out sick.  Let me just say that was super stressful, but such a great way to get into the swing of things, getting to know the learners and how things worked at the school.  Since that hectic first week, the teacher (who also happens to be my supervisor) has returned and my role has changed. Officially, I teach my very own Grade 8 Natural Science course and am doing after school classes two days a week teaching the Chemistry aspect of the Grade 11 and 12 Physical Science.  In the future, I will also be helping one of the teachers with her social studies class and will get to do some activities and lessons dealing with International Development. Definitely excited for that to start! I guess double majoring in Chemistry and International Service wasn’t quite so impractical. Who’d have thought? Ha.

But really, what’s best about the school are the kids. Though at times they can be as annoying and rowdy as any group of teenagers, I really do enjoy teaching the learners in my classes. They work hard (well, most of the time) and are just hilarious. It’s such fun working with them, and their enthusiasm has made me feel ready to really start tackling this time of teaching and learning I have ahead of me.

here we go!

I can’t believe it’s finally here! I’m leaving for South Africa tomorrow to begin my time as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant. I am so very excited and ready to begin this journey! After an eventful last week at home (yes, my dog really did eat my passport on Tuesday and yes, I somehow managed to have a new one in my possession by Friday) and a lot of stress about packing (have I mentioned how much I HATE packing?), tomorrow is the day!

This probably isn’t a good first blog post- it should be full of deep, introspective reflections on my identity and role in the world, but I’ll try and have some of that in my next post. Ha. Just for now, please know I am excited, grateful, nervous and blessed beyond words to have this crazy year sojourning in South Africa ahead of me.

the woes of pre-packing stress.

I know and you know that I don’t leave for South Africa for over two months, but my brain refuses to believe that. Especially at night. When I am trying to fall asleep. MY brain decides that 3 am is the perfect time to start thinking about what I need to pack. I have TWO months brain, go to bed. Oh, but hmm, what socks should I pack? And how many? SOCKS? Socks?! Really? This is not the time. But what if your feet will get cold? Will the weather be cold? What about shoes? And coats? I refuse to think about this now, brain. Sleeeeeeeeep. How will you ever decide which scarves to bring? That’s it!

So now I keep a notepad next to my bed. My brain will let me sleep if I write down these dumb crazy thoughts. Ugh.