Anna's Story

Written by her Peace Corps Supervisor in South Africa
Summer 2000

Anna's story glimpses the soul of South Africa. It is also touches on the heart of Peace Corps. It is a story of difference and diversity, of tenacity and transformation. It is the story of a young woman possessed of grace in spite of age; and a tale of an elderly man, who late in years, comes of age. Here, a young woman travels thousands of miles to learn about life while a whole community makes an important journey in their own backyard. This story is proof that one person can make a difference, and that, sometimes, it does not take a village to raise a child, but, rather, a child to raise a village.

Commondale (Kwashuku School community) is a cul-de-sac of farm laboring families in Piet Retief--a patchwork of mud brick homes run together by ribbons of dusty footpaths and red laterite truck trails. It is bordered on all sides by vast tracts of lush commercial forest, whose depth, breadth, and orderliness speak for decades of white dominion over the land and everything on it, including the lives and livelihoods of impoverished black farm workers. Far from the center of change, Commondate is a place little moved by the wave of transformation. It is a place still very much of the "old" South Africa.

Anna arrived in Commondale--an unforeseen wrinkle in the well established order of things. Regarded with puzzlement but welcomed with the full, warm force of "ubuntu" by the little black farm community, Anna settled into the routine of her host family and began her two year service as a School and Community Resource Volunteer.

News and outrage share an astonishing fleetness of foot. It was not long--a matter of hours--before Anna's presence, one white face among the many blacks, traveled from the small farm community to the insulated homes of the white forest elite. As a rumor, Anna's presence rattled the rock solid foundation of self-assured complacency. As a fact, she uprooted the very order of things. Decades of painstakingly maintained boundaries were brought crashing down by the unloading of luggage in the simple home of a simple family in Commondale. The thought of it registered with the denial that accompanies any state of shock. An assumption was made in keeping with a deeply ingrained world view: this unfortunate, misguided American woman had stumbled unwittingly and unknowingly into a place where she did not belong. The error of her ways need only be made known and, without doubt, she would take her proper place.

White emissaries were dispatched with near missionary zeal to cajole and to reason. Appeals were based on the fraternity of color, solidarity of race and sisterhood of sex. Each appeal was lovingly wrapped in grave concern for safety. Benevolent reasoning gave way under Anna's innocent obstinacy in explaining her presence. It was a circular argument, ending and beginning on both sides with the fact that Anna was white and now lived in a black community. Her color was part of her reason for wanting to live in Commondale. Her color was her "saviors" reason for wanting her out.

Anna's persistence soon provoked irritation and hostility. Tact and tenor gave way, exposing raw root causes. "If you will not think of yourself, then you must think of us. If you--a young, unmarried, white woman--live, not just among these blacks, but with them, what will they think of our wives and daughters?" This was the question as it was asked. A subtle campaign of intimidation began. There would be no easy acceptance or access to the luxuries of the white forest elite--conveniences that Peace Corps Volunteers willingly sacrifice, but that provide a rare and sometimes needed connection to home. Warm baths, continental cuisine, cable TV., Western style living rooms and bedrooms, but at what price?

Anna began a campaign of her own--one so subtle that it could not have been named by those on whom it was enacted. As she settled at her site and began to undertake the frequent comings and goings that her work required, she never failed to reach out to those who had refused to welcome her. A cheery "hello", a routine purchase at a white owned store, small self-disclosures, and smiles--she gave generously of herself and placed others in the position of having to do the same. At the end of two years, consistent kindness had forged unexpected relationships and disarmed the hostility of her detractors. In the black farming community, they learned to look beyond obvious differences toward a common humanity. In the white community , they learned to get past similarities and to test the tide of change.

As she prepared to depart from South Africa, Anna reflected, as all Peace Corps Volunteers do, on the "success" of her two year tenure. In South Africa, where Peace Corps is so new and the challenges of the "new" South Africa so vast, it is common for Volunteers to scratch hard beneath the surface of their experiences to find the kernel of proof that they have made a difference. Right up until her very last day, Anna reviewed her work with principals and teachers, with women and children, and with the community of Commondale. Right up until her last day, Anna wondered.

Anna's answer came from outside the cul-de-sac of Commondale. It arrived by truck and car. It was a response carried in the actions of the white community. On the morning of her last day, at the start of her farewell party, a contingent of the forest elite arrived. Some of the same faces who two years earlier had joined to convince, cajole, and finally to threaten, turned their energy toward a celebration. They unloaded food, built fires, prepared the traditional South African "braai" at the small community hall set in the center of Commondale. Twenty white faces among hundreds of Commondale blacks joined in singing the National Anthem and bowed their heads in shared prayer. The head of the Mondi Forestry Company, a weathered old white man got up to speak:

"I have lived for sixty five years. My parents once owned this farm and all the land of Commondale. Yet, it is only today that I have ever stepped foot here. I am ashamed because it took a young girl to show me the way. Two years ago, we tried to frighten her from here. We did not want Peace Corps. We did not want change. Through her we have learned that people of different colors can live together in peace and with love. It is hard to believe that this young girl has taught me the lesson of my life..."

Anna, resoundingly, had her answer.

Anna Domenico was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Schools and Community Resource Project. She arrived in South Africa with SA 2 (1997-1999). She was placed in the Commondale community where she worked with a cluster of five primary schools. Her work included very solid standard activity (training teachers, working on organizational and management issues with principals, and promoting community involvement in the schools). She distinguished herself by undertaking some specific secondary activities: the formation and training of a women's sewing cooperative, active participation on the Committee for Diversity, the creation of a primary school newspaper and the active engagement with the Worldwise School program. Anna returned to the States in April 2000.