peace corps

All posts tagged peace corps

Na ke Koko

Published March 17, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

Dumelang! Leina la ka ke Koko. [Hello! My name is Koko.]

Koko has been my most used nick-name for as long as I can remember. I never introduced myself that way, it was more so just a name used by my family and close friends. Until I came to South Africa.

Overseas, Koleana can be a mouthfull for some people, and on paper it’s even more confusing so when asked if I have a short name I offered ‘Koko’ and that instantly stuck for a couple of reasons. The most obvious being that Koko is a nickname for my first name. But here it has more implications. In the Sepedi culture a Koko is a grandmother, a wise old woman. You would call any elder women Koko as a sign of respect.

Many Peace Corps Volunteers are given new names by their villages which they embrace as a new identity; names like Lerato-which means love, or Mpho-which means gift. I was not re-named because my community saw me as Koko. I don’t know if I molded to the name or if the village made the name mold to me but either way, I feel honored to be recognized as a wise old woman.

On a side note this whole new take on ‘Koko’ is ironic because I used to have a roommate named Jon that called me grandma. I remember the joke started one day when I wore a crochet cardigan and he said it was a grandma sweater and that I dressed like a grandma. Then I started calling him grandpa just to be a brat. This was nearly 8 years ago, haha.

Now I’m not trying to problemetize my village name but I also kind of am. Peace Corps gives us alot of time to sit and think and try to understand. When I think about what it might mean to be called a Koko even though I’m 26 and childless, my thoughts immediately shift to the very real existence of internalized oppression in rural South Africa. I was dubbed Koko before I did anything to earn that respect or privilege, it was afforded to me instantaneously and under some assumption that I hold wisdom, knowledge and all the answers. Is this because of my Americanness? My skin color??

Serving in South Africa as a health Volunteer was more like completing two Peace Corps services simultaneously. While trying to impact community health I was also struggling to break down racial divides left from Apartheid. My job was not only to prevent HIV but also to be an ambassador for racial integration and trying to capacitate people who think they are incapable because they are black. The Apartheid regime was a true crime against humanity and although it was overthrown about 20 years ago, its effects still linger and the society is still very racially divided. For generations, black South Africans were segregated from white South Africans and forced into labor, project housing in remote areas, and treated as less than. They were denied education, fare wages, and recognition as humans. This relentless oppression eventually became internalized and subsquently many black South Africans today honestly believe they are less than, and that white people do everything better, are smarter, more capable, and have all the skills and all the power.

What does it really mean to be called Koko here? Is it just a nickname, or is there something going on beneath the surface? What can I do to combat this whole white-savior complex? Over 2 years have gone by and I have yet to really place my feelings on the matter. I’ve never been quite so aware of my skin color, and defined by it, as I am here. I’ve blogged about this before and I haven’t developed any solid strategies but I know my task is to constantly be aware of what my whiteness means, and to try to not contribute to the continued oppression of everyone that’s not white. I didn’t choose this skin color but because I was born with privilege I believe I have a responsibility to not exploit others. If you’ve ever seen the movie Ever After, you’d know there’s a running theme of ‘those who are born into privilege have specific obligations’. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Also, Drew Barrymore. I challenge myself to think about what privileges I have and how I can use my advantages to help others. The struggle is real.

At my farewell party a close host family friend gave a speech where he said he never thought he could talk to white people until I came. He praised me for being a good ambassador for America. I guess I’m doing something right. 


All the things! 

Published March 11, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

Ok, not really all, but here’s the first 20 that pop into my head! 

Things I’ll miss about South Africa:

1. Reading by candlelight. Sometimes you just don’t have electricity, and that’s ok. 

2. The sound of rain on the tin roof

3. South African traditional music blasting through cheap speakers on every taxi ride 

4. Fat cakes. Fat cakes everywhere 

5. Going to a community garden where the Gogo picks me fresh spinach straight from the Earth 

6. Sitting. Just sitting. This is usually associated with tea time 

7. Snuggling in bed through a thunderstorm, binge watching TV shows on my laptop 

8. The nanny talking to me in Afrikaans. Even though I’ve lived here for 2 years and speak to her in Sepedi 

9. Endless sunflower fields. Love!

10. “Hello ma’am Koko” from the security guards at work 

11. Children shrieking “Hiiiii” with joy and fear from a bakkie when they drive past me on the road

12. The smell of fresh bread from the bakery in the mornings 

13. Reading on the porch with the dogs sleeping at my feet

14. It’s perfectly acceptable to walk into any party and help yourself to food and drinks, regardless if you know who’s party it is  

 15. Greeting every single person 

16. Kotas = calories 

17. When the trees turn purple- quite possibly my favorite time of year   

  18. The feeling of escaping a near-death summer heat stroke thanks to a guy walking around selling Cool Time in the taxi rank  

 19. Being in a place where the honor system still prevails 

20. Seeing animals run freely everywhere: dogs, cats, goats, chickens, cows, donkeys, and non-livestock game. It was a true blessing to see lions, cheetahs, tigers, giraffes, zebras, monkeys, baboons and wildebeests in their natural habitats…even though a rhino chased me up a tree. 

Races. #18: Cape Gate Vaal Marathon

Published March 7, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

There’s was once a time when the thought of running a marathon was a far-off dream. A distant idea that seemed too challenging to come to fruition. I keep a Dreams List, a bucket-list of things I want to do in my life, and on this list I wrote #43. Complete a marathon. I just wanted to run 1, just to see if I could do it, just for the experience. Run 1 then I’ll cross it off my list and be satisfied. Little did I know, at the time when I logged this dream into my list, did I acknowledge that fact that when I set my mind on something sparkly- I chase it wholeheartedly. Nor did I recognize my habit for indulging in things that I enjoy and that make me feel good. 

So I signed up for my first marathon in Honolulu. I didn’t do very well, I walked a lot, winced and wobbled in pain due to lingering knee injuries from my tumbling days. But I finished, and that’s all I cared about. 

A few days of recovery was all it took for me to start daydreaming about future marathons and recalibrating my body for more precise training and deeper dedication to the process. At that point I thought- Well I’ve done one, I can do it again but make it better. 

Peace Corps service equips us with a lot of free time. More so just alone time regularly allocated into our schedules where many volunteers pick up hobbies, or binge watch TV series off their hard drives alone in their bedrooms. I filled this time with going to the village gym: teaching yoga and training myself for more marathons. I set my mind on Comrades: the Ultimate Human Race. The greatest and longest running ultra marathon in the world. Which just so happens to take place in South Africa, about 10 hours from my village. 

The rest is ancient history. In around a period of 16 months, I ran 9 marathons and ultra marathons; each ranging from 26.2 miles to 50 miles. I ran all over the country, got to meet amazing people and bond over these insane experiences. 

Yesterday I ran my very last marathon in South Africa- the Cape Gate Vaal Marathon, just south of Johannesburg. The race was well supported, and I had friends scattered throughout. I ran a pretty good time- just over 4hr40min. Not my best but not my worst. And although I’m quite happy with how I ran my race, I’m also incredibly humbled by my friends I ran with. Anthony Bond, who hosted me for the weekend and who holds the National record for the running festival- a 6 day circuit race where he completed 563 kilometers- ran the Vaal in 3:23. And my friend Talita who ran a 3:52. Both of these people are amazingly fast runners and they inspire me to strive harder. No matter what I think I’m struggling with or how much adversity I think I have, I remind myself that excuses are the nails that build your house of failure. And I will never allow myself to drown in self-pity.

  Today, trying to recover from the marathon, I went to the doctors for a lingering toe problem. I’ve been in pain for months and after X-rays this afternoon finally found out I have exostosis; extra bone growth on the top of my toe due to trauma from running. I’ve ran multiple races of marathon distance or longer, always chasing a medal or a time or some goal that helps me transcend pain and seek only my dream. I’ll deal with the toe problem when I come home, it’s painful and most often these situations require surgical removal. 

I must always remind myself that certain opportunities are once in a lifetime experiences and a little problem like exostosis won’t cripple me. I had the best time ever running my last South Africa race. I regret nothing. 

Long-Term Whatnots

Published March 7, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

I write a lot about my primary work of availing health service in the villages, which is very fulfilling and takes up the bulk of my time here, but there are a few small projects I’ve kept up throughout my Peace Corps service that I feel it’s time I finally pay homage to. These are things I’ve consistently been working on for 2 whole years and although they don’t really qualify as community health development or HIV prevention work, they contribute to Peace Corps’ unofficial Goal #4, which is that of transformation: personal growth and development. Now I’ll share with you how collecting coins, books, and medals has helped me work towards being more present, knowledgable, and integrated.

  1. Lost and Found Jar

I keep a jar on my fridge that holds all of the coins I have found on the ground over the last 2 years. Only coins I’ve found are allowed into this jar, and I never take any coins out. The jar is filled with coins valued at 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents. The 1, 2 and 5 cent coins are no longer produced or in circulation in South Africa, which means these ones are super old! You may be asking yourself- “How is this contributing to personal development?” Well, my answer to that is this- when I’m walking somewhere, I take my time. I stroll around and pay greater attention to everything around me, which causes me to be more present in every moment. Who would’ve thought something so silly as picking up lost coins on the ground could influence presence and consciousness? This little project has led to me being hyperaware of my surroundings and seeing everything, even the littlest of things. I have yet to take my jar to the bank to cash it in, but when I do I’ll let you know how much ended up being in there!

2. Book List

Early in my service I told myself I wanted to read 27 books in my 27 months of Peace Corps. I’m happy to say that I have reached my goal, and thanks in large part to people who have sent me books! I couldn’t have done it without you! I really enjoy spiritual fiction and non-fiction, and also works involved in the topics of health and wellness. Thanks to my nagging volunteer friends and their obsessions, I did start dabbling in sci-fy/fantasy, and the infamous Grey series as well. Some books were just excuses to stay under my electric blanket through winter, others were slightly more impactful in my life but altogether I’d say I gained a great deal of perspective and developed my creativity and imagination further. See my reading list for a complete picture!

3. Corner of Accomplishment

There’s a huge running culture here in Africa and the general welcoming nature of its people means it’s easy for an international runner like me to break into the local running scene. I hang my race bibs and medals in a corner in my bedroom and I love looking at it to reflect on my experiences here in South Africa. I look at this corner and think about the challenges I’ve faced, the joy I’ve felt and the relationships I’ve built all because I have a love for this crazy thing called distance running. I have developed an obsession over growing this collection and subsequently I’m constantly training and running races wherever I can in this huge country. Running is incredible release, comfort, solace, escape, presence, growth, influence, challenge, and the most insane mix of pain and pleasure. But I think most of all, for me at least, running provided a coping mechanism for the trials of Peace Corps service…of living and working in the developing world and all that comes with it.


 Find opportunity for growth and experience in even the smallest of things. Thanks for taking the time to read about my small projects. 🙂


National Condom Week!

Published February 21, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

 This last week I worked a 2-day campaign at the tertiary colleges of the Sekhukhune district (CS Barlow and Dr CN Phatudi campuses). The campaign was organized by First Things First, a school-based project that emphasizes campus health and health education. Over 2 days I had one-on-one sexual health and wellness counseling with 71 college students, and the event overall reached over 500 students! What a success! 

Common issues found among the students are lack of condom usage and thus a high prevalence of HIV and STIs. 

Developmental work isn’t as simple as just saying ‘use condoms’. No, it must reach a level deeper than that. 

There’s a reason why a person chooses not to use a condom. Some may generalize it as stubbornness, but I see much more complexity in the situation and therefore opportunity for development and capacity building to happen. Ignorance about proper condom usage is a very superficial problem. What’s more likely is that the person doesn’t have confidence in condom negotiation, or is in a relationship where an imbalance of power exists, and there may even be cultural barriers to accessing free condoms without facing berating and judgement. 

These are heavy, intricate issues. And they are real. And I try my best to combat them everyday with the people I counsel. 

And I don’t want to make it seem like these problems only exist in South Africa; it’s everywhere. But I think the prevalence is higher here because of certain cultural drivers of HIV like the pressure for women to be submissive and obedient to men. One woman I spoke with wanted an HIV test because she suspects (knows) her husband is cheating on her. She doesn’t feel comfortable talking about using condoms with him for fear of getting a physically or verbally abusive response. 

I struggle with having to tip toe around cultural norms because I don’t want to offend anyone, while at the same time I must encourage self-advocacy and ownership over your own body.

With each and every person I encounter, I strive to deliver quality service because they deserve 100% from me. It most definitely gets exhausting, but it’s thoroughly fulfilling work and at the end of each day I pack up my tents feeling that I made a positive impact. 

On Friday I wrapped up National Condom Week by doing a group exercise on proper condom usage for male and female condoms with 150 learners at a local high school. These are always full of laughs and fun, but the retention of the skill is there because they all demonstrated pretty accurately!  

The clock’s ticking and before I know it it’ll be time to leave! What a weird thing! 



Races. #16: BMW Modern Autohaus Marathon

Published February 21, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

Yesterday I ran another marathon~ 42 kilometers or 26.2 miles. I ran it just for fun, and a lot of Peace Corps volunteers were there running other distance, and my host mom and sister came too! 

  My host mom has been coming to races with me and running 5k’s and working her way up to 10k’s now! So proud! After some coaxing my host sister decided she would do a little training to prepare for her first 5k- which she completed yesterday!! I believe any person can achieve remarkable things if they can push themselves beyond their perceived limits. I enjoy seeing this being done in the physical context, and find great joy in helping people discover their own physical ability. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have positively influenced my host family with running. 

My iPhone has a nike+ running app that I wanted to test out. I used it on my iPhone about 3 years ago, and I like the idea of having a log to track my runs. First I tested out the app on a treadmill. I ran 5k in 27:17 according to the treadmill. I had to keep running until about 29:30 for the app to log 5k. The app wasn’t recording distance properly; I thought, ok, maybe the app just isn’t accurate for treadmills but for sure running on the road would be more precise because the app is tracking distance via gps, versus treadmill running which uses an accelerometer through the app on the phone. So I took my iPhone out on the marathon course with me and kept it in my waist pack while running. Once I hit the 10k mark at 57 minutes I looked at my phone to check the accuracy of the app- it said I had only run just over 4 miles!?! Hence, the nike+ running app is horribly inaccurate not only on the treadmill but with road running as well. In the past I’ve used Map My Run and from what I remember it seemed to work pretty well, so maybe I’ll switch back to that because Nike is terrible. 

  The course itself was pretty flat with no major hills and on all tarred road. It was hot as balls, as the African summer is in it’s prime. Some aid stations ran out of water (rookie mistake) which forced runners to walk for a substantial amount of time. I also struggled with my asthma most of the race. I have a respiratory disease and it can be limiting at times. I have trouble finding a balance between my ambition and the reality of sickened lungs. I tend to set lofty goals for myself ignoring the limitations I know I have. Asthma causes me to struggle breathing just doing regular-ass things. Then I try running a marathon and get angry when I’m slowed to a walk because I can’t breathe. When I was young I used to be really self conscious about it. I was embarrassed having to carry my inhaler with me especially when running in gym class, always trying to control my breathing. Over the years I’ve learned techniques to avoid asthma attacks, but they can still happen of I’m not careful. But I love to run. I always have. As a kid my favorite recess activity was racing the boys across the blacktop. I’ve always loved running. So I still try my best to push through and manage my inner dialogue that flip flops through positive and negative cycles. There are moments where I curse the gods for damning me with a weakened respiratory system. Then I have to remind myself that despite my frustration and limitations, I still cover a distance that less than 1% of the world population will ever do. Running a marathon is absolutely crazy, and each of those 26 miles presents its own challenges I must overcome to get to the finish line. 

Some days are good; some days are not so good. I overcame the adversity, ran when I could, walked when I couldn’t breathe, and met some cool people along the way. I strolled through the finish line with a big smile on my face as I heard my friends cheering my name. One thought that kept me pushing through to the end was knowing afterwards I would go to my friend’s house and leap into her pool while simultaneously guzzling champagne. 🙂 

  I am constantly being humbled by my physical limitations, and at the same time motivated to keep pushing the limits to find out how far I can go. Asthma won’t stop me from running. 


Races: #15: Bronkhorstspruit. And the Buddhist Temple.

Published February 15, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

I’ve been wanting to visit Nan Hua, the largest Buddhist Temple in Africa, for the longest time. They offer meditation retreats and lunch with the monks and it all just sounded so intriguing. It’s in a town called Bronkhorstspruit- only around 250 km from my house so it would be feasible to get there by public transport.

Then I heard there would be a race in Bronkhorstspruit (10k) this past weekend, so I decided this is my opportunity.

After work on Friday I went to the taxi rank and after nearly 7 hours of public transport, I arrived in Bronkhorstspruit. It was a short 2 km walk to the hostel (called the Sink Shack) a friend told me about, and luckily they had a bed in a dorm room available for me! This place had walls of shiny tin and a maze of hallways and made me feel like I was in a fun house at EDC. I’m not complaining. They had a huge bar/restaurant area with indoor/outdoor seating, and live music! As much as I wanted to chill there enjoying the music all night, I knew I had an early morning and wanted to feel rested for the race, so I hit the sack pretty early. Conveniently, the Sink Shack is located directly across the street from the high school where the race would be hosted (could this be any more perfect?). So I woke around 5am and walked over to the starting area.

The 10k course was all tarred road and ran around the neighborhoods of Bronkhorstspruit and the temple, ending at the high school where we started. I placed 7th for women which wasn’t good enough for any prize money but whatevs. I had fun so that’s what counts! After watching the prize givings I showered up and headed to Nan Hua.

The temple is huge, with many buildings for different things…a meditation hall, prayer, a dining hall, a guest house.

There were long corridors and staircases everywhere. It made me feel like I was in some Asian variation of the Labrynth LOL

Meals are eaten in silence, with and without the monks. Everything is vegetarian, served buffet style, and donation-based. While eating we’re encouraged to contemplate how our food got onto our plates, considering all the people and steps involved and showing gratitude for each one. Also thinking of food as nourishment or medicine for the body and believing in its healing properties. We also think about greediness- a trait we want to avoid- and when given the opportunity to serve oneself in a buffet, practicing self-control, only taking as much as one needs and not more.

Through the years I’ve developed my own unique set of spiritual beliefs that don’t ascribe to a particular religion, but I do believe in the power of meditation and the formidableness of inner peace. As a person who’s very energetic and restless, I try to use yoga and meditation to quiet myself down for some soul check-in time, and I find it very helpful. I saw this weekend as an opportunity to practice meditation in preparation for the Vipassana course I’ll be taking in a couple months. It can be challenging to sit still, in silence, and focus on myself; but this weekend I forced myself to do so and left the temple feeling so light and clear.
All in all, it was a wonderful weekend. The race felt good, the temple was fulfilling, and I managed to be home just in time for Sunday family dinner with the host fam! I brought home some pink and white cupcakes for our Valentine’s Day dessert! ❤




Hostess With The Mostess

Published February 12, 2016 by kokoinsouthafrica

Working hard. Playing hard. It’s always a fun time at Koko’s house. 

This week I hosted 3 newbies from the cohort that just arrived in country. They shadowed me at work and around my community while I introduced them to the projects I have going on and tried to give them a feel for what their service will look like as CHOP volunteers. (Community HIV Outreach Project).

We went to my main org through which we did some HIV counseling & testing outreach work in my village. While I handled the HCT portion, the ladies assisted with blood pressure testing and condom demonstrations. It was good exposure for them to be out in the community interacting with people, practicing Sepedi while learning techniques for teaching about HIV and sexual health.

And of course we had to have a little fun here and there!  

When I first arrived in SA two years ago, I shadowed a Peace Corps volunteer named Gilbert and it was a wonderful experience. It really helped me get an understanding of what my time here could be like, and I remember standing in awe of Gilbert and the positive impact he had. His org loved him, his community loved him, and I knew I wanted to strive for that kind of success.

Two years later, as I’m having these three ladies with me all week, I have the feeling the roles have been swapped. Now I’m finishing my service and looking back on the work I’ve done and I’m thinking Wow, goddamn, that was wild.

It’s hard to be objective when you’re so subjective. As I was caught in the middle of the whirlwind roller coaster of Peace Corps service, I struggled to see how the puzzle pieces fit together. And now, clarity is coming and the view is fantastic.


Dang, am I really almost done??