I do this early childhood literacy program called SOUNS at the lower primary school in my village. SOUNS uses solid plastic representations of phonetic sounds (letters) and a repetition of those sounds to help young children read, not just recognize words. So I introduce four sounds each week to my students, for example, the sounds “o m s t” were the first week, “p e i h” the second and so on. Sounds are introduced according to their level of frequency in the English language. So “o” is the most common sound therefore introduced first and “x” is the least common sound therefore introduced last. I take 4-6 students at a time from grades K-2, three days a week and let me tell ya, the light at the end of my tunnel has appeared!!!!! I love these children; absolutely love them. They bring about every emotion possible - excitement, joy, fulfillment, bliss, etc. They challenge me in ways I have never been challenged sprinkled with sprouts of frustration and irritation. Yet everyday as I walk to my school, I get giddy and excited all over. Now, teaching and literacy has always been a secret passion of mine, even a hobby. However, I have never considered it as a career path until now. I came to South Africa with a Master of Public Health, focusing on HIV/AIDS and maternal/child health and I expected to be doing just that. Unfortunately, things do not always work out the way you plan it because I am doing nothing relating to my educational background or expertise. But who am I to tell a community what they need? Clearly, they want their children to read, but not just read, to comprehend what they read. And here I am, an American, who in their eyes holds the solution to their problem. It is so much pressure to bear but I am hoping and praying I can deliver success and progress. I do not want to disappoint my community, I want nothing more than to help and build them up. I know their children are their treasures and they are wholeheartedly handing them to me. ME! A stranger in their village yet they believe in me so much that they have entrusted me with their futures. That is love. Almost unconditional love, it brings me to tears.
Applying for Peace Corps in Africa, I knew I would face many challenging situations that would not only test my will, motivation, and intellect, but also my character and morals. I knew coming in, I was not the “average” Peace Corps Volunteer. When I applied, my parents, family, and social community had to no idea what Peace Corps was, nor did they know the prestigious history behind the organization, nor did they care; just being honest. All my parents and family knew was that I was going to leave them for a place similar to the one they escaped from, a third world country that did not offer the same comforts and security as home. Nevertheless, I was proud to join the Peace Corps as a first-generation Iraqi-American, first-generation college graduate, and various other hyphenations that made me standout from the “average” Peace Corps Volunteer.
However, that pride and self-assurance slightly diminished as soon as I was thrown into my group in South Africa. I was among the best and brightest of America, I believed. Though geographically diverse, many of my colleagues were White, upper-middle class, Agnostics with advanced degrees and credentials. I was proud to be in such company. Though as time went on, I began seeing how disadvantaged I was being a minority and raised with such restricting cultural traditions that none of my colleagues could ever relate to nor understand. Hell, I didn’t even understand them for half my life. Sessions during pre-service training (PST) clumped me in this “White American” box that I had absolutely nothing in common with. Some of the sessions on American culture were actually a learning experience for me and I realized how ignorant I was to how one dimensionally the rest of the world saw Americans. It saddened me. One of the main reasons I joined the Peace Corps, and what I told my recruiter during the interview process, was to try to represent the ethnic minorities of America. To show my community that Americans come from all over the world, speak different languages, and may look just like you. Unfortunately, that pride and enthusiasm was gone as I was continually being referred to as something I was not. Though I really loved being seen as simply an American, with no hyphens or question, I also started to embrace the White, Agnostic, upper-middle class label even though I was none of those things. Was I becoming ashamed of who I really was? Was this Jr. High all over again? Because it definitely was not cool to come out as a Christian and nobody cared where I really came from. So, I lost it for a moment. Could I blame this solely on Peace Corps? Surely, I had gone to a state university with over 40,000 students, graduate school in southern California, and worked in various countries all the while, I still stoutly retained my morals and roots. Why was this so different? I suppose it was a form of self-preservation. Having to be away from everything I know for two years had me terrified. If I do not assimilate with my fellow PCVs, I would be alone. However, I eventually learned that is the farthest from the truth.
It took me a long time to finally recover from the drudgery of PST and regain myself again. Though I still continually hear us all being called White instead of Americans or have to hear anti-Christian sentiments, I still feel pride in who I am. Recently sitting in a session during our in-service training, I hear a presenter refer to herself as a “recovering-Catholic.” As a blatant Catholic, perhaps I should have felt offended instead; I chuckled to myself and commended her for her honesty. I felt I had been quiet enough; I too am ready to make a testimonial of who I am, which is why I am writing this today. I am a first generation Iraqi-American from a Catholic, working class family…and I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.
You know you’re in South Africa when you’re excited that your khumbi only took 2 hours to fill. So during the wait, there’s a lot of vendors coming into the taxi selling things: cold drinks, chips, bread, cakes, airtime, socks, nail clippers, etc. They immediately single me out and shove everything from pairs of socks to small babies in my face. I kindly say, “aowa” (no) and they move on. Moments later, they come back shoving the same pair of socks in my face. Why yes Mr. Vendor man, in the time it took you to circle the rank, I lost my socks!! It’s all good, I still smile. But I wonder how long this smile will stay on my face because it’s slowly been fading. These next two years will be a multiple subject test and I’m trying to prep hard for it. But as long as I keep smiling, I think it should be fine. However, I did chip my left molar yesterday so my smile is looking a little janky…among other things.
I would keep him if I could.
The Listening Heads
Meet Karabo: all that is right and beautiful in the world.