I’m going to tell a little story about something that happened early in training more than 2+ months ago. I didn’t tell this story at the time because I didn’t want my friends and loved ones back home to be overly-alarmed, and because I wanted to save it for a blog post on how important safety and security is to the Peace Corps.
You all know from earlier blog entries and Facebook posts that as soon as we arrived at Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on January 27 – warmly greeted, by the way, by Country Director John Jacoby and his top staff — we were whisked away by bus to a remote youth camp a two-hour ride away near the small village of Bundu, in Mpumalanga Province. This was to be our home for the next five days until we were introduced to our host families, to live with in the villages of Bundu and neighboring Matshipe, for the next eight weeks. The camp consists of a kitchen/dining hall where we had our meals, a gymnasium, classrooms and a giant outdoor covered play area where we had many of our sessions because it was summer and in the 90s most days. There were also about 20 “rondavals,” the round, yurt-like structures I’ve described before, with grass roofs, where we slept each night, two to a yurt. Oh, and a nest of baby cobras! You don’t want to know what happened to them!
Those first days were a whirlwind of activity, as we got to know each other, were introduced to our “language and cross-cultural facilitators,” or LCFs, started learning words and phrases of several of So. Africa’s 11 official languages, and had our first tastes of Peace Corps life. All that activity continued for the rest of the nine weeks of training, but after five nights we went to live with our host families and came to the camp only during the day, by local taxis. From the beginning there were armed security guards about, hired by the Peace Corps to keep everyone safe and to look after the property, vehicles and other expensive equipment, especially at night, that was there for our training.
A few days after we stopped sleeping at the camp, we arrived one morning to learn of a change in schedule for the early afternoon, that John Jacoby, country director, would be arriving to speak with us about something that had happened. He was accompanied by John Allen, the regional safety and security coordinator for Peace Corps South Africa and seven other African Peace Corps countries. That something was that two nights before, armed intruders invaded the camp at 11:30 p.m., there was a gun battle, and one of the guards we had come to know had been shot in the stomach. Another guard was pistol-whipped and both were in the hospital, the gunshot victim in serious condition. The robbers got away with a gun and a cell phone, but nothing else. No Peace Corps staff was injured, though some were staying at the camp.
John, who started his duties as country director only two months before our arrival, in November, said he wanted to be completely open and honest about what had happened, to answer all questions, and to assure us that all necessary steps would be taken to keep everyone safe. He said that John Allen and our own Peace Corps South Africa safety and security coordinator, Gert (pronounced “Hairt”), had evaluated the situation in consultation with local police and concluded that it was an isolated incident. They answered all questions put to them, clearly and honestly, it seemed to me. Security was increased. The guards recovered, though the one who was shot was in the hospital for several days. Rachel, a PCT from Virginia, volunteered to hand-make a nice card for everyone to sign. Training continued with no further significant security incidents, except that a few days later we abandoned the youth camp and moved to a different venue down the road, the SS Khosanna Game Preserve, which also had rondavals and nice meeting areas. We were told the change had nothing directly to do with the shooting incident, but, rather, that the local government that owned the youth camp had failed to follow through on promises in regard to other issues. “SS,” as we came to call it, was a nicer place anyway and gave us many opportunities to see African wildlife on the mile-long, twice daily drives from the road to the center of the preserve. At various times we saw wildebeests, water buffalo, baboons, monkeys, zebras and large deer-like animals, the size of elk, that I never positively identified, but could have been elands. Or something else. Cool antlers, though! About two or three feet long and curved upward. Someone suggested they were impalas – “springboks” in Zulu.
In the ensuing weeks there were many more sessions that touched on safety and security in numerous ways: in using public transportation like taxis, in watching out for fellow volunteers when they use poor judgment in public; in policies around alcohol use, not hitchhiking, and avoiding big cities, especially Johannesburg, which is said to have a high crime rate. About not going out at night. About being in pairs when possible, rather than walking alone. About always knowing what’s going on around you, being observant. About not carrying large amounts of money and not flashing it – or your fancy laptop and camera — around. About letting others know where you are when you travel. Common sense mostly. But, as we all know, sometimes common sense isn’t very common so Peace Corps staff hammered away at ingraining those ideas into our heads. Most of these sessions were led by Gert, a talkative, outgoing guy who used to be a cop. And wore the most outrageous shirts!
Our last session on safety and security, just a couple of days before training ended, covered the “emergency action plan” every volunteer is supposed to be aware of: what to do in a true emergency like major civil unrest, a coup, a major natural disaster like a tornado or earthquake. (There was a coup recently in another African country, Mali). The Peace Corps has on occasion pulled out of countries, removing all volunteers more or less immediately, because of significant major, potentially dangerous events. Because volunteer safety is paramount. There are four alert levels, the most serious of which is evacuate immediately to your predetermined gathering point, where PC staff will meet you and see that you get to safety. It was at this session that John asked those of us who blog about our experiences to not mention the specific villages we are in, as a safety and security precaution, since Facebook posts and blogs are very public forums these days, available to anyone with access to a computer. He didn’t offer any examples, as I recall, about why it might be dangerous to announce where you’re staying, but it’s a request I plan to honor. If some nefarious individual wanted to track me down, it would be pretty easy to do so if he knew what village or town I lived in. When you’re the only white guy in 70,000 people, you stand out. This doesn’t mean you can’t know where I am. It just means you won’t read it in my blog or on FB. If you just can’t stand not knowing, send me an email and I will tell you!
And finally, this: One day I may do an entire blog just about using taxis. But here’s a tip anyone who travels in So. Africa should know. Peace Corps training stresses the inherent dangers in hitchhiking, that is, accepting rides from strangers. One could get robbed, or raped, or lost, or take a ride from a drunk. (So. Africa has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world). And we were told a story about four PC volunteers in another African country, not SA, who accepted a ride from a stranger who turned out to be drunk. When they realized this and asked to get out, he refused to stop. Eventually, he crashed. Two of the PCVs were killed and the other two were badly injured.
But the other thing that is reported to happen on occasion is how taxi drivers respond to hitchhikers, which they view as people who are cutting into taxi driver income. A driver who sees a hitchhiker will call a couple of other drivers on his cell phone, they all meet at where the hitchhiker is, jump out of their taxis, surround the miscreant and force him into a taxi and take him back to the nearest taxi stand, or “rank” and order him to take a taxi instead of hitchhiking. In America, we would call this kidnap or unlawful imprisonment, major felonies, that could net you 10 to 20 years in the slammer. But in South Africa? . . . Free enterprise! I find this hard to believe, but, they told us this in official PC training, so it must be true.
OK. One more final. PC has 10 “core expectations” it expects volunteers to abide by. I will share one each time I blog, in no particular order of importance. This is how they were listed on the document I signed agreeing to follow these expectations — Number one: “Prepare your personal and professional life to make a commitment to serve abroad for a full term of 27 months.”
LATE-BREAKING NEWS FLASH: I learned today (4/7/12) that one of my fellow volunteers, Rachel, who is mentioned earlier in this post, had a terrifying experience a few days ago in her town, which is not far from mine. She was surrounded by a group of drunk local men who harassed and intimidated her repeatedly, including poking her in ways that left bruises. Eventually, she escaped and returned to her home. She reported it to PC South Africa headquarters, where she was asked to come to Pretoria immediately for medical evaluation, debriefing and support. She also has a blog and has reported openly there of her experience, so I’m not revealing any secrets here. (If you want to read about it in her own words, this is the link: http://wondersofthewander.com/2012/04/02/a-difficult-confession/). I share it here because it’s another example of PC’s commitment to PCV safety. In the past, the Peace Corps has, rightfully, earned itself a black eye a time or two for its poor responses to critical, life-threatening events, including one in which a female PCV was murdered in an African country a few years ago. It claims it’s turned over a new leaf and, from what I’ve seen in my South Africa experience, so far it’s true.