Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in South Africa
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service we consider normal in the United States. If you come here expecting U.S. standards, you will be in for a lot of frustration. Mail takes a minimum of two to three weeks to arrive, often longer. Some mail may simply not arrive (this is rare, but it does happen). Although we do not want to sound too discouraging, communication can become a very sensitive issue when one is thousands of miles from family and friends. We think it is best to forewarn you about mail service in this part of the world. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to write “Airmail” on the envelopes.
Packages sent via airmail can take from six to nine weeks; those sent by surface mail take around six months. If someone is sending you a package, a suggestion is to keep it small and use a padded envelope so it will be treated like a letter.
Despite the potential delays, we strongly encourage you to write to your family regularly and to number your letters. Family members typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so advise them that mail is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly. Volunteers in South Africa do not receive duty-free privileges, so be aware that you may be charged duty on items you mail to yourself before you arrive. Volunteers normally receive mail at the Peace Corps office during training, but obtain a local post office box once assigned to their sites.
Packages received at the Peace Corps/South Africa office will be delivered to you only when staff is traveling in your area. Letters will be forwarded to you once a month.
Your address during training will be:
“Your Name,” PCT
PO Box 9536
Pretoria, South Africa
Do not expect to have e-mail or telephone access during training. Telephones are readily available in South Africa, but you may not have one at your training site. International phone service to South Africa is good, though expensive. AT&T, MCI, and other U.S. companies provide direct long-distance service to the United States. Using a calling card is cheaper than calling collect.
Cellphones are widely available in South Africa. You will find that most people have cellphones, even in the remotest parts of the country. A cellphone purchased in the United States may not work here, and many Volunteers choose to purchase their own cellphones here.
The Peace Corps office in South Africa can be reached by direct dialing from the United States. The number is 011.27.12.344.4255. The fax number is 011.27.12.343.7774. Volunteers are not permitted to use the telephones at the office to call family and friends unless the call pertains to an emergency and is approved in advance by the country director.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Computers are available in South Africa, but most Volunteers in rural areas will find few, if any computers. Your site may not have electricity, so the ability to use a personal computer is not guaranteed. More and more Volunteers find that their school or organization has a computer, but knowledge of how to use the computer is limited. The Peace Corps office in Pretoria has computers available in the Volunteer resource center for Volunteer use. (Peace Corps staff computers are not available for Volunteer use.) Volunteers normally use these computers for committee work and to complete service documents. We encourage Volunteers to use computers that may be available at district/circuit offices and sponsoring agencies for any grant or proposal writing to ensure that counterparts participate in the proposal-writing process. In most large cities and towns, Volunteers are able to access e-mail at Internet cafes. Volunteers’ monthly living allowance includes money to cover use of Internet cafes.
Housing and Site Location
All Volunteers live with a host family at a site located anywhere from one hour to nine hours from Pretoria, the capital. Proximity to another Volunteer varies from site to site.
Your host agency will provide safe and adequate housing—in accordance with the Peace Corps’ site selection criteria—that is likely to consist of a private room inside a family’s house or a room in an outside building within a family compound. Housing varies from mud houses with either thatch or tin roofs to brick homes with tin roofs. You need to be very flexible in your housing expectations because there is no guarantee that you will have running water or electricity. If you do not, you will collect your water from a well or borehole and spend your evenings reading by candlelight or lantern.
The sponsoring agency or host family will provide you with basic items (i.e., a bed, mattress, desk/table, straight chair, and cupboard for hanging clothing or storage). Each Volunteer will receive an allowance in local currency to purchase needed settling-in items, as well as a water filter provided by the Peace Corps.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer, you will receive a modest living allowance, paid in rand, that will allow you to live on a par with your colleagues and co-workers. The amount of this allowance is based on regular surveys of Volunteers and the cost of living in South Africa. The living allowance is paid quarterly into Volunteer bank accounts, so the ability to manage funds wisely is important. The allowance is intended to cover the cost of food, utilities, household supplies, clothing, recreation and entertainment, transportation, reading materials, and other incidentals. You will also receive a leave allowance of $24 per month (standard in all Peace Corps countries) for the upcoming three months, paid in local currency, along with your living allowance each quarter.
Most credit cards and ATM cards are widely accepted in South Africa. Current Volunteers suggest that you bring cash and credit cards for vacation travel. The amount of cash depends on the amount of traveling you plan to do while serving in South Africa.
Food and Diet
The staple food in communities where Volunteers live and work is maize (corn), prepared as a thick porridge called pap and eaten with vegetables or a sauce. Many fresh fruits and vegetables are available in South Africa, and with a little creativity, you can enjoy a varied diet even in rural areas. Volunteers either prepare their own food or share meals with their host family. You can determine what the best arrangement is for you once you have been assigned a site. Fruits and vegetables are available seasonally, which means some things will not be in the market year-round. A variety of meat and dairy products are also available. Though most South Africans are meat-eaters, vegetarians are able to eat well here after becoming familiar with local food items and their preparation. Most South Africans do not understand vegetarianism and will not normally be prepared to serve a vegetarian meal if you are a guest in their home. However, a sensitive explanation of your preferences will be accepted. Most vegetarian Volunteers have no difficulty after an initial adjustment period.
Volunteers’ primary modes of transportation in South Africa are public buses and combies (minivans) loaded with people and goods. Combies travel between towns on irregular schedules (i.e., when full), so travel on this form of transport is never a timed affair. Bus schedules are fairly regular, but buses generally are not available in some rural areas.
Many Volunteers receive an all-terrain bicycle (along with a helmet) to facilitate their work. It is Peace Corps’ policy that helmets be worn when riding. Note that these bikes are men’s bikes, which can be difficult for women to ride when wearing a skirt. Many female Volunteers wear shorts under their skirt to solve this problem.
Volunteers are not allowed to drive, own, or operate motor vehicles, including motorcycles (two- or three-wheeled). Violation of this policy can result in your being terminated from Volunteer service.
Geography and Climate
Most world maps give a poor idea of how large South Africa actually is. At 472,276 square miles, it is five times the size of the United Kingdom and one-eighth the size of the United States. Kruger National Park alone is as big as Wales, and the distance from Johannesburg to Cape Town is the same as that from London to Rome. The country’s 1,835 miles of coastline border the Atlantic and Indian oceans, which meet at Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa.
South Africa is south of the equator, so its seasons will be the opposite of what you are accustomed to. January is midsummer and July is midwinter. Johannesburg, Pretoria, and the rest of the eastern Highveld have a dry, sunny climate, with maximum winter temperatures of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and crisp nights, with temperatures dropping to around 40 degrees. Between October and April, the daytime temperature can rise into the 80s, with frequent late-afternoon thunderstorms. Temperatures can get hotter in the Great Karroo, the semidesert heart of the three Cape provinces; in the Kalahari region; and in the Lowveld of the Eastern and Northern Transvaal. The terrain ranges in altitude from sea level to South Africa’s highest peak, Injasuti (11,178 feet), in the Drakensberg, near the border with Lesotho, and contains ecosystems from tropical forest to desert dunes. Almost every known crop can be grown somewhere in the country.
Your social life will vary depending on where you are located, but is likely to include taking part in various community festivities and celebrations. The most common form of entertainment is socializing with friends and neighbors. There are three television stations, which broadcast both South African and American productions, and several radio stations that play popular music. In communities with electricity, watching TV is a major pastime.
Some Volunteers visit other Volunteers on weekends and during holidays. However, we encourage Volunteers to remain at their sites in order to develop relationships in their community and promote the second goal of the Peace Corps, cultural exchange. Most regional towns have movies, Internet cafes, and restaurants that Volunteers can take advantage of when in town for shopping or other business.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
South Africans place an importance on professional dress in the workplace. Dress is more conservative in rural areas than it is in the major cities. In the United States, we often view clothes as a reflection of our individuality. In South Africa, your clothes are seen as a sign of your respect for those around you. South Africans do not appreciate clothes that are dirty, have holes in them, or are too revealing. Wearing them will reduce the amount of respect given to you and therefore your effectiveness. While jeans and T-shirts are acceptable as casual wear, it is more common to see men in shirts with collars and casual slacks and women in casual dresses, skirts, or slacks with blouses or shirts. South Africans generally do not hesitate to voice their opinions when they consider someone’s dress to be embarrassing or inappropriate.
The Peace Corps is still a young organization in South Africa, and as a Volunteer you will be expected to behave in a way that fosters respect within your community and reflects well on both the Peace Corps and the United States. Your dress, behavior, and attitude will all contribute to how well the agency is received. You will have the status of an invited guest, and thus you will have to be sensitive to the habits, tastes, and taboos of your hosts. If you have reservations about your ability or willingness to do so, you should reevaluate your decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. Volunteering to work effectively in another culture requires a level of sacrifice and flexibility that can be difficult for some people. Behavior that jeopardizes the Peace Corps program or your personal safety in South Africa cannot be tolerated and may lead to administrative separation—a decision by the Peace Corps to terminate your service.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter of this Welcome Book and in Peace Corps/South Africa’s Volunteer Safety Manual, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most South Africa Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in South Africa. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
The AIDS pandemic strikes across all social strata in many Peace Corps countries. The loss of teachers has crippled education systems, while illness and disability drains family income and forces governments and donors to redirect limited resources from other priorities. The fear and uncertainty AIDS causes has led to increased domestic violence and stigmatizing of people living with HIV/AIDS, isolating them from friends and family and cutting them off from economic opportunities. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will confront these issues on a very personal level. It is important to be aware of the high emotional toll that disease, death, and violence can have on Volunteers. As you strive to integrate into your community, you will develop relationships with local people who might die during your service. Because of the AIDS pandemic, some Volunteers will be regularly meeting with HIV-positive people and working with training staff, office staff, and host family members living with AIDS. Volunteers need to prepare themselves to embrace these relationships in a sensitive and positive manner. Likewise, malaria and malnutrition, motor vehicle accidents and other unintentional injuries, domestic violence and corporal punishment are problems a Volunteer may confront. You will need to anticipate these situations and utilize supportive resources available throughout your training and service to maintain your own emotional strength so that you can continue to be of service to your community.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction is quite high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. Perceptions of time that are very different from those in the United States, financial or other challenges of collaborating agencies, lack of expected support in a timely manner, and being perceived as very rich can be challenging. Peace Corps Volunteers often describe their experience of adapting to a new culture and environment as an intense series of emotional peaks and valleys. You will be given a great deal of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you ever have. Often you will need to motivate yourself and others with little to no guidance. You might work for months with little visible impact and without receiving feedback on your work. Development is a slow process. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
To deal with these difficulties you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, compassion, and resourcefulness. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave South Africa feeling that they gained more than they sacrificed during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community, work hard, and revel in small accomplishments, you will have a truly life-altering experience. it will be hard.