Wednesday, December 16, 2009

New Photos

I've finally posted photos from my trip to Blyde River and a few from the village. You can check them out here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Few of My Favorite Things

A friend just sent me a one line email with the question "What is your favorite thing about South Africa?"

I wish that the answer came as easily as the question. I wish there was just one thing that I could pin point and say, "that's my favorite thing about this place." But its not that simple, especially when you are talking about a place as complex as South Africa.

However, since I'm sure that Oprah's doing it and its the time of the year to pull The Sound of Music off the shelf and because its Christmas time,  here's a few of my favorite things as best as I can represent them:

My Favorite Store: Fruit and Veg City. The freshest fruit and veggies I think I've ever seen in my life, and they always have great deals. I'm lucky to have one in my shopping town.

My Favorite Pizza Place: Bravo Pizza. Americans need pizza or at least we need something that makes us feel a little connected to home. Its a small place in Pretoria with outdoor seating, a brick oven and the thinnest crust I've ever found. Amazing and oh so good. And the people who run it are great.

My Favorite South African Food: A toss up between Sepatlo and Samp. Sepatlo, a South African sandwich that's ridiculously bad for you but ridiculously good. Samp, similar to hominy but not quite the same. Hard to describe.

My Favorite South African Beer: Yeah, haven't found that yet. Not a place especially known for their beer.

My Favorite Spot in the Village: The road behind the village that I run on in the mornings. Not much traffic, foot or auto. A nice quite place to run where I can enjoy the solitude and can watch the sunrise.

My Favorite Village Animal: The donkey. Hands down saddest and yet funniest creature in the world.

My Favorite South African Saying: It varies between "Eish", "Sharp", and "Owwa". Eish is kind of like saying "oh, my goodness." Sharp like saying "its good", "i'm good", "got it", or basically anything you want it to mean at the time. Owwa like saying "I can't believe you just said that" or "no, that's not at all what I was trying to say".

My Favorite South African Adventure: Skydiving or getting up close and personal with an elephant herd.

My Favorite Time of Day in South Africa: Sunset. Beautiful.

My Favorite Part of My Life in South Africa: The simplicity of life in the village. I have few possessions and with a few notable exceptions (like my computer) most of them are not worth very much. Life is slower and calmer. I read. I write. I watch movies. I sit for hours chatting with my host mom and neighbors. I bake my own bread and make my own pasta sauce. Everything in my life with the exception of the grocery store and the ATM is a fifteen minute walk or less.  I realize more and more how little in life I actually need, and its a nice realization.

My Favorite Thing about South Africa: It is a country that desperately wants to heal from its past. I think that overwhelmingly people want to put Apartheid and its results behind them, but how to do that is a confusing and very complex thing. Often what is tried is not effective or doesn't have the intended effect. But almost everyone I talk to, they want to move forward. And I think that's simply amazing.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Africa's Sex Appeal

“Africa is not that Sexy,” read the article headline in the latest Relevant Magazine issue newly arrived in far off Mmametlhake, South Africa. Yes, it’s true. Africa is not that sexy.

The African cause. No matter how many dollars are poured into aid and development. No matter how many celebrities stand up in support of their favorite charity. No matter how many politicians visit the remotest parts. Africa is not that sexy.

I thought it was when I moved here. The sex appeal and the romanticism of living in the African village. The simplicity of it. Working with your hands. Teaching and serving. Making a difference and making life long friends.

But simply put, it’s just not that sexy.

The pit latrine. The insects the size of my fist. The passive aggressiveness so prevalent in South African culture. The corruption and nepotism that runs rampant and seemingly unchecked. The stereotypes one African culture has about another, leading to xenophobia and racism. The unemployment rates. The widespread alcoholism. The violence. The crime. The poverty. The hungry. The sick. The dying. None of it sexy.

But when was it supposed to be sexy. When was giving a cup of water or a loaf or bread ever supposed to be sexy? When was caring for the widow or the orphan ever supposed to be sexy? When was loving others as yourself ever supposed to be sexy? Was acting out the gospel message ever supposed to be sexy?

I don’t think that it was. People didn’t believe in Jesus because of his sex appeal. They believed because of the simple complexity of grace and the fullness of love. And the people he lived among and served weren’t sexy. But they carried in them a need for the love of God and his mercy.

No, when you look at it, Africa has no real sex appeal. At least what I have seen of it. But it has a lot of people who have a lot to give and a lot to receive.

Life is not easy here. Simpler maybe, but not easy. It’s not romantic. It’s not ideal or even that fun a lot of the time. But it’s a place where Jesus is. It’s a place where God is moving and working. And where God’s people move and work. It may not be sexy. But I do believe that it holds the quiet beauty of a place being shaped and formed by the hands of God.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Pre-Technology Kind of Life

I just wrote the following article for our monthly (or sometimes monthly) Peace Corps South Africa newsletter and thought some of you out there might be interested in the read:
I was talking with another volunteer the other night about life in the village without a computer. Her laptop recently had a bad run in with an electrical storm and she’s now learning to live without until she can get it fixed.
My own computer’s power adapter went out back in July. At the time, I was able to easily get a replacement, but unfortunately the box store that sold it to me sold me the wrong adapter. It was just an amp off from what it needed to be, and that one little amp fried my ac/dc connection and the screen. Four months later, and I just heard the good news that my computer is on the way back from HP.
I greatly admire those volunteers who decided not to bring a computer with them, but I was not hardcore enough to be among that crowd. I need my fix—Gmail, Facebook, The Office and movies galore. In the first few months at site, I developed a reliance on it for brain-numbing entertainment and a taste of America.
Without my computer, I was at a loss. Within a month, I had read ten books and worked my way through two books of crosswords. Bedtime went from 11pm to 9pm. I cooked, baked, exercised, wrote letters, journaled and eventually found that I was sitting for long periods of time doing absolutely nothing.
After that first month, I began to adjust and being computerless did not bother me quite as much. I grew accustomed to the new forms of entertainment and discovered a sort of nostalgic enjoyment for pre-technology life. I discovered life at a slower and more enjoyable pace. I discovered the joy of simpler pleasures and rediscovered old hobbies.
Now that I have a computer again (I have a loner from a friend for a few weeks), I am certainly enjoying and reacquainting myself with the technological wonder that is the computer, but it’s nice to know that I can live without it. That I don’t really need the fix. It’s not the most profound of self-discoveries that I will experience during my Peace Corps experience, but it is a step towards deeper self-awareness none the less. And I certainly didn’t know that all that time without a computer would bring me to a better understanding of myself. The experience brought home to me that our time in Peace Corps is on one level about coming to a better understanding of ourselves and what we am capable of—whether its life without a computer, a toilet, running water or Chipotle. I think we are unimaginably capable of pushing ourselves beyond the limit we previously knew. With a world of limitless possibilities, new depths are always possible.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tragedy Part 3 (Written 28 August 2009)

It was early, the sun had yet to find the horizon and the moon was growing dull in the early morning haze. 5:00am.

I wanted to stay in the warmth of my bed—deep in the embracing comfort—but this was not the day for snoozing.

I pulled the covers away and fumbled quickly for extra layers of clothing. The nights were slowly becoming warmer, but it was still very cold outside of my toasty bed.

The light. The kettle. The mug. And the can of instant coffee.

I moved back to the dresser. A long black skirt. A long sleeved brown shirt. The best funeral garb I had. Out of the drawer came a thin, black scarf. Hair up in a bun and the scarf wrapped neatly around. Shoes—brown slides. Not the best outfit I had ever put together, but it would do. Everyone would be happy to see my head covered, my arms covered, and the skirt. No one would care about the style or lack there of in the ensemble.

I sat to wait. I heard Rakgadi return. The sun had risen but was veiled behind a thin layer of clouds.

6:00am passed and 7:00am approached. Maybe Rakgadi had changed her mind about taking me along. Maybe it was all too much for her and she wasn’t up to being my chaperone today.

No—the familiar “sissy” soon came. I opened the door and came out of the house. There was a look of approval from Rakgadi, and I know a look of envy from me as I noticed Papis’s jeans.

We walked to the gate, left our yard, and walked the path to Rakgadi’s sister’s house. All the while the singing of the night before continued and amplified as we neared the tent prepared for the funeral guests.

The funeral service lasted well over an hour. It was too sad for words, and many of the words spoken I did not understand. As it drew to a close, the guests began to make room in the yard for the make-shift hearse. Majority of the guests would follow to the nearby cemetery. I stayed behind with Rakgadi to help with the final preparations of the meal the guests would soon return to.

Rakgadi was unsteady and unsure of herself. She walked slowly into the house and sat down on the sofa. No words. No tears. Just a blankness. I held her hand, rubbed her back and sat in silence with her.

Ten minutes passed and she forced herself to return. To remind herself of the task. She moved slowly to the back of the house where the preparations were going on—still in a daze.

“Aus Natai” from one direction. “Aus Natai” from another. All were asking her questions—they needed her guidance. She looked towards her name each time it was spoken, but past the person speaking. Several minutes passed before she became herself—giving answers, directions, and finding the many tasks that her hands needed. I followed dutifully along, helping where I could.

By the time we arrived home that day, the exhaustion was well worn on Rakgadi’s face, and my own tiredness was beginning to take its toll. Rakgadi gave a simple thank you for my help. It was more than what was needed. We both knew it. We both felt it. Our relationship had changed that day.

“Family” was no longer a word thrown about, but it was what we were. Since, our meals together have become more frequent. Our talks together more intimate. The way we move about each other in our day to day more familiar. And our mutual love for one another deeper.

I have always known that tragedy has a way of bringing people together, but over the passing of these days, I saw it played out in my relationship with Rakgadi. And although we still have many days when culture and language just don’t translate, we have a deeper understanding of each other that pulls us through those moments. Ours is a relationship that I could not nor would want to do without in my South African journey.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tragedy Part 2 (Written 23 August 2009)

10kg bags of carrots and potatoes and onions were stacked around and under tables in the small room. A group of women crammed in around the tables littered with fresh vegetable peelings. I greeted the women, took the rather dull knife that was handed to me and found a place around the table. Potato in one hand and knife in the other, I began to scrape the skin from one vegetable after another.

The short walk with Rakgadi to her sister’s house had seemed endless. We had little to say to each other—her grief weighing heavy upon her, my nerves jostled at the thought of the coming cultural interaction. I had helped prepare meals at weddings and other village celebrations, but never a funeral. No, I shouldn’t have offered to come and help. I should make an excuse and leave soon. I am the foreigner. I am the legoa (white person). What can I give? No, this is not about my comfort level. This is about supporting Rakgadi and the community. This is not about me. This is not about me.

As we peeled and diced and chopped, the women talked freely. But there was a blanket of sadness that hung about the room. This was not the lively and jovial talk that I was growing accustom to.

I went about my work quietly, occasionally smiling to myself at the small bits of conversation that I caught. My hands grew tired as I struggled with the dull knife. Potato after potato, carrot after carrot and the hard rinds of the pumpkins. After the bags of potatoes and carrots, bags of onions appeared on the tables. One onion, eyes began to sting. Two onions, eyes were watering. Three onions, large tears were brimming, making it difficult to see. Four onions, the tears were spilling over and we began to laugh in spite of ourselves.

The laughter and the tears were freeing to all the women at the table. Some how they brought us closer together. The laughter and the tears. Laughter and tears over the potency of onions, but laughter and tears over something much deeper, as well. It is the unspoken thing around the table. It is what we cannot say or admit to. It is the horrific and the painful—layers as potent as the layers of the onions.

In that moment, we found a common bond—a bond around the laughter and the tears. That bond would carry us through the onions and the rest of the pumpkins to the finality of tea and biscuits as the sun set over the day.

Rakgadi would soon walk me home and gather blankets to bring back. She and her sisters would spend the night—cooking all through so that when morning came, all would be ready for the funeral guests.

As the sun set that night, I heard the song begin. The song of mourning and lamenting that would drift through the night air until the first rays of sun returned. I listened to the song as I laid in my bed, remembering in its slow rhythm the laughter and the tears. The laughter, the tears, the song—they all merged and melted into dream as I lay in my bed. Dream and hope for something better the next day.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tradgedy Part 1

My good friend Roze has graciously loaned me her computer for a week, so I'm going to take full advantage and post several blogs entries that I have written over the last few months. Below is the first post in a three part series...


Tragedy Part 1
15 August 2009

It was a day as any other day. My host mother came home from school. I heard her open her door, and I waited and listened to the sounds of her settling in after the day's work before going to greet her.

I continued reading my book, half-listening to the sounds when I heard a new sound. It was the faint sound of uncontrollable sobbing. I have heard this sounds before since coming to the village, but it was usually at night and now seemed out of place in the daylight hours. I know that there is much hidden sadness in this place, but I question how I can help this mourner in this moment. Can I help them? Should I? And the final, incessant and irritating question--What is culturally appropriate?

Before I can make a decision, I hear the familiar sounds that signal my host mother's readiness for our daily greeting.

I put down my book. The wailing has stopped. I stand and walk to the door. I can hear my host mother making moves to the same door.

"Dumela Rakgadi" (Greetings aunt)

"Aghe, Le kae sissy?" (Hello, how are you sissy?)

"Ke teng. O kae?" (I'm fine. How are you?)...but as I ask, I can see. Rakgadi's eyes are swollen with tears. She is the wailing woman. She falters and asks me how my flu is before I can ask her what is wrong. I tell her I am better but don't have the words to speak further. Tears in this strong woman's eyes are not something I have seen.

She finds the words that I do not have.

"It is very bad," she says as she swallows back more tears. "Do you remember that girl who came to ask you about the computer?" I remembered her. She had come to ask Rakgadi--her rakgadi and my rakgadi--about places to use the Internet. Rakgadi asked what she needed the Internet for--"to search for scholarships." I told her of an Internet Cafe I knew of in a village not far from here--a R10 taxi ride. She was shy and quiet in front of the American and thanked me before leaving. After she left, Rakgadi remarked, "she's very clever, that girl."

Yes. I remembered her. Seventeen years old. Just completed metric--the equivalent to senior year in schools in the States. I remembered her.

"That girl has been killed."

"What?" I stammered. "That's awful."

I was again at a lost for words, but I didn't need them as Rakgadi continued, "Did you see the police come past last night? I saw them and told Papis I had a pain. I knew, I knew then. They found her body in the bush. Killed by her boyfriend's friend."

It was still too awful for words. I wanted to reach out and hold Rakgadi. I wanted to hug her and let her cry. I wanted to offer some comfort, but all I could offer was my shock and stunned silence.

I asked if Papis, my host brother, knew.  She said it was he who had called her. She was leaving to go to the family--to sit with them, to mourn with them, and as one of the elders in the family to begin making arrangements for the funeral.

The story would later be told to me. That this friend of the girl's boyfriend had called her late at night and told her that her boyfriend was cheating on her. He lured her out of the safety of her home under the guise of taking her to see the boyfriend's infidelity. Once he had lured her out he raped and killed her, leaving her body in the bush.

This clever girl. This young, clever girl who had found, applied for and won a scholarship to the University of Pretoria. This girl with the bright future--the chance to pull herself out of poverty and her family along with her. This girl stolen and now mourned by a grief-stricken community. Yes, I remembered this girl...

As Rakgadi prepared to leave, I told her to let me know if I could do anything to help. It is what we say in our culture. An offer, to show our condolences and our sorrow. But it lost its meaning as it crossed from my lips to her ears. I saw the question in her face. "Anything," I said, "I want to be of use. I want to help. You, you are my family now. This is my family." With these last words, I saw understanding pass into her eyes.

Family. This was her family. I was asking in this moment of grief to be a part of the family and offering to give what I had.We both found a shared understanding in this word. and in the coming days it would come to have a deeper meaning for our relationship. Family. It would come to be the word that would carry us through.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Village Fun Run

Let me start out by providing you all with some sage advice. If you are going to Africa or some other remote place in the world, I highly recommend doing a full overhaul and check-up on your laptop before you go. It’s been almost three months since I took my laptop to Pretoria to be fixed and it is likely to be at least one more month before I get it back. The first place I took it to was unable to fix it, and although the second place can fix it, they have to wait on the parts. So in the mean time, I’m dependent on my internet phone and infrequent access to rather pricey internet cafes. Thus my long absence here. But I wanted to give you an update and let you know that I am still alive.

So alive that last Friday, I participated in the Mmametlhake South African Police Service (SAPS) 5K Fun Run. For those of you who are fans of “The Office,” yes, there were many similarities to that remarkable episode, but with a South African flare.

The race was scheduled to start at 7am that morning. Graciously a few other volunteers who stay in villages near me came to run. (Thanks again, Laura, for sticking it out.) Being Americans, we arrived at SAPS at seven. Several of the officers and the superintendent seemed to be in a pre-race meeting, so we hung back until Constable Ngobini—one of the officers who works closely with my organization and a friend—came over to tell us that they were running late and would be starting soon. This was expected and as we seemed to be the only participants, we sat down to wait it out.

Eight o’clock passed and a few other participants began to arrive. By 8:30 there were about fifteen of us, and there was no putting it off anymore. The plan was to start by our in-progress domestic violence shelter (still roofless) and run back to the SAPS offices. Six of us climbed into the back of an ambulance, a few more into a squad car and the remaining into a taxi. The ambulance drove to the shelter, and…we waited. For some reason the other vehicles did not arrive for another fifteen minutes.

Finally, we all arrived at the starting point, and Laura and I were ready to go. (Anne and David, neither one feeling well, had by this point gone back to my place to cook us cinnamon rolls as an after race treat.) Before starting one of the officers organized us into lines of four. Strange, but I thought, “Okay that’s logical. There’s only a few of us running on a tar road. It’s a safety thing.” Oh, no. Not a safety thing. The officer began leading us in stretches and a, well, 1980’s aerobic style warm-up. Laura and I, deciding that we had already done plenty of warming up, stepped to the side to, umm, observe.

After a grueling warm-up the lead car set off and we finally started the run. Besides my self and Laura, there were two other guys who were actually runners, and I should point out much better runners than myself. The rest of the group was a hodge-podge of employees from the various government offices in our village most of whom admitted to the fact that they had not run in years. Laura and I did fairly well coming in a respectable forth and fifth overall and first and second among the women. When I checked my watch to see our time, we had run it in a remarkable 25 minutes. I know I’m improving and getting back to my pre-Colorado departure pace and I know we were running a little faster than normal pace, but 5K in 25 minutes? That couldn’t have possibly been a full 5K. I’m running between a six and seven minute kilometer on a regular basis, which means we should have been running for five to ten more minutes. When we checked it on Google Earth later, we discovered that our 5K fun run was probably just over 3K. Oh, well, “E” for effort.

Overall it was an enjoyable time, and I’m all about promoting exercise and healthy habits in the village. I’m also looking forward to the opportunities that will come out of it. I’ve been asked to help plan the next run which I am hoping we can turn into a big community event for World AIDs Day on December 1st. I also have a new running buddy out of it, Constable Connie, one of the officers who helped plan the run. If interest continues to spread from here, there might also be an opportunity for creating a running club. But that’s all to come…

So six and a half months into my service—more than a quarter of the way through for those who are keeping track—I am still finding my groove in my community and contributing where I can. It’s never easy but never unbearably hard either. I’m looking forward to the return of my computer and posting the many blog posts I’ve been saving. Until then…

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Pretoria Effect

So this will likely be my last blog post for a while. Why? Because my laptop is feeling a little ill and had to go visit the doctor. Hopefully it's not too serious and the doctor bill won't be too steep. That also means I will be a bit slow responding to emails, etc. (Currently at an internet cafe in town. And since I don't get to town all that often...)

The past two weeks, I have spent readjusting to life in the village. Readjusting after almost a month living in Pretoria. At the end of June, I started having strange and very painful cramping and stabbing pain throughout my abdomen. Peace Corps brought me to Pretoria to do some tests and try to determine what was wrong.

I lived the posh life in Pretoria at the Rose Guest Lodge--a nice bed and breakfast that Peace Corps uses to house med-evacs from other African countries and South African volunteers who are having a time of it medically. It was definitely high living--in some ways higher than in the states: breakfast made-to-order every morning, terry cloth bathrobes, hot shower complete with water pressure, real coffee. It was a good life at the rose.

I spent my days going between medical appointments, wandering around one of the three malls near the Rose, waiting for test results, deciding which movie theather to go to and which movie to see, deciding what test to try next and choosing between restraunts, ordering-in or cooking with the other volunteers staying at the Rose. It was an entire world away from the four months I had spent in the village.

After a litany of blood, urine and stool tests, an ultrasound, an x-ray, a CT scan and finally a colonoscopy and gastroscopy--all of which came back normal--we decided to try an anti-parasite treatment even though there had been no evidence of parasites in my urine or stool. Two weeks after the start of the ten day treatment, I seem to be fine. Apparently those little tiny creatures are really good at hide-and-seek.

The month in Pretoria was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. While it was nice to have all of the modern conveniences surrounding me, this was not the life that I came to Africa for. I was tired, and many times seriously considered whether it was worth it or not to continue with Peace Corps. Each time a test result came back normal, I was happy to know that the signs pointed to nothing seriously wrong with me but was still in a lot of pain and disappointed that we were no closer to finding the answer. I wanted to be back in my village--building relationships, settling into the routine of village life, learning the culture and language and assisting my organization. But having so much time on my hands also made me resent many of the things that I had come into contact with in the village. So while I wanted to get back to the village, there was a part of me that also wanted to have nothing to do with the village. I wanted friends and family and resented that they were not there to comfort me through the barrage of medical exams and tests.

It was a strange experience that I really had no one who I could fully express all the things I was feeling to. There were just certain thoughts and emotions that didn't translate without a good understanding of the context. And the Peace Corps rumor-mill is a vicious thing. I wanted to keep myself out of it as much as possible, so I tried to limit the number of volunteers who knew that I was in Pretoria. (Thinking back on it, I'm sure everyone knew, but I like to think that I kept it pretty quiet.)

My month in Pretoria is a feat I hope not to replicate during the rest of my service. It's a nice place to visit for a few days, but a month is too much. The "Pretoria Effect," as many volunteers refer to it, can be a very damaging thing to one's psyche. I am very happy to be back in the village now and as much as possible am trying to pick up where I left off. In some senses, I am starting over and rebuilding, but I know every night when my host brother comes over to say goodnight and everyday when the women at my organization ask how I am feeling and when I recieve a big hug and a "I was praying for you"--I know at those moments that people do care and are truly glad that I'm here. That foundation is still there, just some cracks that need to be filled in before we can start building again.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Welcome Home

It’s time for a home warming party. Welcome to my family compound. The incomplete house in the center is the future home of my host family. I live in the small sand-brick house on the far right.

Family Compound 

This is my house. Just the perfect size with two small rooms.

My House

The first room I have set up as a kitchen area. The small electric stove is a loner from my organization. The large yellow bucket in the corner is where I store my water, and the blue bucket serves as the kitchen sink. I’ve been keeping myself busy with lots of little projects like the suspension systems for my pots, mugs and plates.

The Kitchen

The second room is set up as the bedroom, office, living room and bathroom.

The bedroom:

The Bedroom

The office:

The Office

The bathroom: (The make-shift shower is a great improvement over bucket-bathing.)

The Bathroom

Outside are the washer and dryer:

The Washing Machine

 The Dryer

And let’s not forget the toilet:

The Pit Latrine  The Throne

You can see a few more pictures over on my Flickr page.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Straddling the Line

Last week I spent my first few days in Pretoria. It was a strange experience to be in a modern city after four months of village life. Towering buildings, lights, sounds, people everywhere and seemingly limitless choices--where to eat, what to eat, what store to shop at, what taxi service to use...

Pretoria has nothing that would distinguish it from most other modern cities with the exception of the high walls, razor wire and electric fencing that surround every home and many businesses. Unfortunately this level of security is necessary due to the high level of crime in the city. Walking in pairs during the day is highly recommended, and at night don't walk anywhere without a group of at least five--even in the nicer areas.

I stayed at one of the local backpackers that caters to Peace Corps volunteers. I found it to be a nice little haven in the midst of the busy city around me. In addition to the few volunteers, there was also a group of students from the UK, a traveling musician from Spain, a couple form Australia and another American who was in Pretoria doing free-lance writing for ESPN (the FIFA Confederation Cup began last week). Each had equally fascinating stories for how they ended up in South Africa, and I enjoyed conversing with the diverse group of travelers.

On Friday evening, our new free-lance journalist friend invited us to go with him to the Italy national team practice. When we arrived, the practice turned out to be a scrimmage against a team of South African All-Stars. So we found ourselves in the press box with free buffet and open bar watching the reigning World Cup Champions soundly thrash the competition. Two nights before I was in my village listening to the drumming of the rain on the tin roof and praying for the electricity to come back on. The juxtaposition was almost too much for me.

After a few interviews with the players, we jumped back into the rental car and headed back to the other side of Pretoria. Here I was in the city that my host brother commutes to on a daily basis for school. The city where probably about 90% of the employed in my village commute to work--what can be a three to four hour taxi ride despite its proximity to our village. And here I was living the high life. It was a lesson in opportunity--a lesson that I'm still trying to choke down. How do you move gracefully and easily from a "developing world" setting to a "developed world" setting? And how do you fit comfortably into either when you live above the standard of the first and below the standard of the second? I'm afraid there is no answer to these questions.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Top Ten

Top 10 items that I packed in my suitcase:
  1. Photos from home
  2. Duct tape (I have not found it here, and it really is the most useful item I brought. Yes, it really does rank higher than my laptop.)
  3. Laptop
  4. Books/movies (lots of downtime)
  5. Reusable grocery bags (I use them on a daily basis)
  6. French press (unfortunately broken but has since been replaced)
  7. Sewing kit (I've hemmed curtains and sewed all sorts of useful items for my house)
  8. iPod (Is it possible to live without music?)
  9. Running shoes
  10. Sleeping bag
Top 10 items I have purchased for settling into my new home:
  1. Cell phone (Not sure it really fits the list, but that means calls from the States and Internet access)
  2. Solar shower (I don't know how I lived four months without it)
  3. French press (Well, I consider good coffee an essential)
  4. Water barrel (Keeps me from having to haul water from the tap every day)
  5. Buckets (Handy for hauling water when I need to refill the bucket)
  6. Rope (Hanging things from the rafters saves storage space)
  7. Wall hooks (Another space saver)
  8. Electric kettle (boils water super-fast)
  9. Tupperware (The obvious food storage use but also came in handy before I purchased dishes)
  10. Refrigerator (Well, I like food to stay fresh.)
Top 10 items I've received in a care package (and lots of thanks to everyone who has sent one):
  1. Pictures from home
  2. Thomas the Train Valentine's Day Cards from my nephew
  3. Starbucks coffee
  4. TLC granola bars
  5. A copy of TIME
  6. Stickers (I've mostly given them away to kids, but they still make me really happy to see them in the package.)
  7. Lotion from Bath and Body Works
  8. Duct tape (It hasn't arrived yet, but I was told it was coming. I've already used the roll that I brought with me.)
  9. Clothes that wouldn't fit in the suitcase and still have it meet the 80lbs. limit
  10. Relevant Magazine (Coming directly from Relevant--way to go to them for sending it to my the post office in my little village.)
Top 10 items that I just couldn't do without:
  1. Pictures from home
  2. Peanut butter (readily available and regularly purchased)
  3. Cell phone
  4. Books
  5. Britae filter (Peace Corps gave it to us. The water from our tap is really sandy. I've never seen a filter get so nasty so quickly.)
  6. Toilet paper (It almost makes going to the pit latrine seem normal.)
  7. Pee Bucket (Because my pit latrine is at least a hundred yards from the house, and I just don't want to traverse that at night.)
  8. Duct tape
  9. Buckets
  10. The big, fuzzy blanket from Peace Corps (It keeps me warm at night when the temperature gets down to 40°F and the tin roof and concrete walls let in the cold.)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Meeting Makau

Legoa (Le-ho-a) is a word that I have become all too familiar with. In
Setswana it means "white person." It doesn't necessarily have a negative
connotation, but in certain circumstances and uses it is not exactly a

Most often I hear it from children as they eagerly wave and yell for my
attention, "Legoa! Legoa!" This encounter is usually followed by an
explanation in Setswana that my name is not Legoa but Amanda or Makau
(my Setswana name). Now when I pass by the primary school on my way to
and from work, I hear shouts of "Amanda! Amanda!" along with the eager

This encounter was magnified last week when we went to visit two of the
local primary schools and one of the middle schools as a part of Child
Protection Week. Upon my arrival at the first primary school, all of the
children crowded around the doorways shouting legoa and giggling to see
a white person at their school. Later during the presentation led by
members of the police force and one of our own volunteers at the victim
empowerment center, I was introduced properly.

Schools in the villages do not have auditoriums, gymnasiums or
cafeterias for assemblies. Most consist of three to five buildings
surrounding a large courtyard area. Each building usually houses three
to four small classrooms. For assemblies, the students carry out chairs
into the courtyard and arrange them in rows. At the middle school, the
students where required to stand in rows. Rainy days, hot days and cold
days make assemblies rather miserable.

The middle school we visited is the same school where my host mother
teaches. The entire faculty consists of eleven people including the
principal, and there are over 300 students. Class sizes range from 40-60
kids crammed into a classroom, sharing desks and/or chairs. Not exactly
a conducive work environment, but both teachers and students work with
what is available.

Although somewhat thrown together at the last minute, our presentations
went rather well. We had the opportunity to share valuable information
with students on how to protect themselves and how to report abuse and
crime. I was really glad that I had the opportunity to tag along and
that I got to know a few of the officers at the police station a little
better. It was a really great experience, and I'm glad to be Makau in
the minds of so many more children.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Medicating the Problem

I spent the last three weeks trying to fend off an annoying and persistent cough. This means staying in pretty close communication with our Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) and traveling back and forth to my shopping town to get medication from the pharmacy.

There is a pharmacy at the hospital in my village, but my host mother assures me that it is better to use the pharmacy in our shopping town. The hospital means long lines and waiting for hours. From what I understand there is also a chance that the hospital pharmacy may not even have the medication that you need, especially if it is not a commonly prescribed medication.

It's slightly annoying to have to travel by taxi to my shopping town, especially when I don't feel well--but the convenience of getting a prescription in five minutes or less at the pharmacy and being able to send that little receipt off to Peace Corps for a reimbursement makes it worth it. And its a convenience that I am highly aware is not available to most people in my village. Yes, they too could travel to the pharmacy in the shopping town, but that's a R58 taxi ride round trip plus the cost of the medication. It's expensive and a luxury that most people around me simply cannot afford.

The last few days of training, our PCMO gave me a PPD test (TB skin test), it thankfully came back negative. I had asked for the test because of a high suspicion that at least one member of my training host family (possibly all three) have active tuberculosis--a strong possibility when 95% of the South African population has latent TB.

The day I was given the test, I walked out of the exam room and started crying. I cried not because I was afraid of having contracted TB, but because of how easy it was for me to get tested and how easy it would be for me to get treatment if the test showed positive. I knew that it was not easy for my host family to get that kind of care or to be able to afford the treatment necessary. In that moment, my life of privilege was blatantly contrasted with the new world I found myself in. And now I see that contrast in a thousand ways almost on a daily basis. It is a contrast that I sometimes have a hard time coping with--feeling guilty, angry, remorseful, frustrated, and a host of other emotions.

Those emotions can eat away at you--eroding hope and crippling your ability to serve the community and empower them to build up needed resources. It is a trial that I think many volunteers face.

For me, there is only to lay those emotions at the feet of Jesus and ask for hope and love in their stead.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

News at the Embassy

The US Embassy in South Africa put up a nice article about our group of volunteers on their website. You can check it out here.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Lessons in Painting

On Tuesday of this week, Stellah, Sophy and I met at my house to finish painting the interior walls.

This was our second attempt.

The first time we tried to paint the house we ran out of paint after the first coat in the first room (it's a two-room house). Really this was probably my fault. When they asked me if I thought "five" would be enough, I naturally thought that of course, five gallons would be more than enough to paint two coats in two small rooms. Unfortunately South Africa runs completely off of the metric system. So "five" meant liters and not gallons, and five liters was enough for one coat in one room on a concrete wall.

For the second go around, they bought a ten liter bucket. I new it wouldn't be enough to fully finish the job, but I was more concerned with the other more serious problem. This was a different kind of paint! Not only a different shade--this was water-based and in our previous attempt we had used oil-based. My mind wandered back to basic science in elementary school--oil and water do not mix. I already knew, but now I was positive that this was my coworkers' first experience with painting a house. And really, what could I do? The paint had already been purchased, and I knew that it had cost the center a lot of money that they didn't have to spend. So we started painting the second room...

During my previous experience of painting with Stellah and Sophy, I found myself several times teaching basic painting skills like: paint in the same direction to keep the paint from looking streaked or blotchy when it dries, don't put too much paint on your brush or in the paint trays, finish painting the section you are on before moving to the next. I frequently found myself feeling like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid--"paint the wall, Stellah-son and Sophy-son." But I don't think I was displaying the Miyagi patience. Several times I felt my frustration rising as I showed them again and again the importance of painting in vertical strokes--not circular motions or a few vertical strokes followed by a few horizontal and diagonal strokes.

At one point on Tuesday, I asked Sophy if she was tired, "A o lapile?" Sophy said "no" that she liked the work. I was surprised at her response. I knew how tired and frustrated I was. I really just wanted the project to be done. But as Sophy's response sunk in, my heart softened and my frustration began to subside. I suddenly realized how empowering this simple activity was for these two women. Two single mothers in their late twenties for the first time in their lives doing a job that is traditionally thought of as a man's job. My friends got to live for a few hours outside of the cultural norm and experience something challenging and new. And I became so excited and happy for them.

At the end, we completed two coats in the second room--which looks pretty good--and one and a half coats in the first room--we'll call it art-deco. It was an experience that I hope I will not forget soon, and I'm hopeful that Sophy and Stellah will not soon forget it either.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A Day at the Nature Preserve

I got to spend the day at a nature preserve near my site last week to help with a Peace Corps training. It was amazingly beautiful! To check out more pictures from the day, visit my Flickr page.

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Friday, May 01, 2009

A Weekend of Celebrations

Last weekend I attended several local celebrations in the village--a funeral, a tombstone unveiling and two weddings. Each of these events are very important in Tswana culture. (The area I live in is predominately Tswana. While there are some similarities between the various tribes in South Africa, they definitely all have their own distinct culture and origins.)

When I say that I attended the funeral and the tombstone unveiling, it was more that we stopped by to pay our respects and give well wishes to the family. But before we left both homes, we were offered a plate of food. The sharing of meals and food is very important. Very rarely do I visit someone's home without being given something to eat. The offering of food is more than just a welcoming gesture, but a chance for the person you are visiting to share a portion of what they have with you. It goes back to the idea of Ubuntu that I discussed in an early post--I am because you are also means I have and so I give.

After we paid our respects, we moved onto the home of the bride's family to help prepare the food for the wedding celebration. Thankfully it is the duty of the men to slaughter the cow and prepare it. My contribution was peeling and grating a ten pound back of carrots. At almost every celebration, a cow is slaughtered. Cows are a sign of wealth in the Tswana culture. Slaughtering a cow is a way for the family to share their joy or share their sorrow with their friends and neighbors.

After we had finished preparing the food, we took a portion of it to the house of the groom as an offering to the groom's family and the couple themselves. The mothers loaned me a traditional skirt that all of the female members of the brides family wore for the wedding. Everyone got a big kick out of the American in the traditional garb. We sang and danced all the way to the groom's home and then took part in more traditional songs and dances that the bride's family does to announce the arrival of the bride and their blessing. After which we sat and watched the proceedings and waited for the groom's family to give us the head of the cow they had slaughtered. The cow's head would come back with us to the bride's house.

We left the bride with the family of the groom, and the bride's family returned home to continue the celebration. The family of the groom and the bride only celebrate together for a brief amount of time.

Upon our arrival back at the bride's home, we dished up more food--I had eaten six times that day by this point--and continued the celebration.

The wedding on Saturday was a similar format but a much bigger wedding. The couple on Saturday had actually been married for about ten years but had never thrown a celebration for their friends and family. Sunday's wedding was a young couple who actually went through the full traditional wedding on that day. It was a much bigger celebration complete with a traditional dance group and lots of alcohol. At each celebration I have attended, I've noticed that there is always a circle of old men who by the end of the celebration are very, very drunk. It is custom here for men especially to drink a lot more than most of us would drink in the US. Alcoholism is definitely a huge problem that is enforced by so many factors like the high unemployment rate.

By the end of the weekend, I was very, very tired and didn't want to eat again for days. But I am glad that I had the opportunity to share in such a way with my community, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Freedom Day

Today is Freedom Day in South Africa. It marks the day in 1994 of the first post-Apartheid  elections, allowing all citizens to vote for the first time in South Africa's history. Nelson Mandela would become the country's first black president and a time of justice and healing would begin for a country that had been torn apart by so much bigotry, racism and hatred.

Many images that I have seen over the past few months come to mind as I reflect on this day and what it means to the people around me. Most specifically images from the Apartheid Museum in Jo'Burg dance across my thoughts. Our training group was the first to have the opportunity to visit the museum, and it was definitely one of the highlights for me. If anything I wish we could have had more time to spend there.

I was twelve-years-old when Nelson Mandela cast his first vote in a South African election, when he led his country out of Apartheid. I don't remember knowing anything about it at the time. It would be a few years later that I would read Alan Patton's Cry, The Beloved Country for the first time, but it was without context and understanding. And although my general knowledge of what Apartheid was has grown since that time, it was not until the past few months that I have truly come to any real understanding of the word and what it was and still is for South Africa.

On Wednesday of last week, South Africa held parliamentary elections again. The majority went to the ANC (African National Congress), the party of Nelson Mandela and the party that has been in power since the elections of 1994.

I am no expert in South African politics, and as a guest in this country will voice no political opinion. What I will say is that the right to vote is the most extraordinary of rights that we as humans have created and recognized. The right for your voice to be heard is a part of human dignity that should never be denied. And the ability of a government to recognize and hear the voices of its citizens is the essence of a stable and high-functioning government.

It is my hope for South Africa that the voices of the disenfranchised, the poor, the suffering, the abused and the sick will be heard. And not only that they will be heard, but that they will be listened to and responded to. It is my hope that South Africa will continue to press on towards healing and a future for all of its citizens.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst
        for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted
        because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
                                           Matthew 5:3-10

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A New Name and a New Home

On Thursday of this week, I went to meet with the village chief or kgosi in Setswana. Kgosi literally translates to king. It was a very different experience from meeting the chief in our training village and meeting the Ndebele Prince--more informal and personal.

Myself and two of my co-workers arrived at the tribal office around 10am Thursday morning and waited our turn to present ourselves to the chief and the village elders. When our turn came, we offered the formal greetings and Maureen, my supervisor, introduced me as the new Peace Corps volunteer. The chief himself was already well-informed of my presence in the village since Peace Corps had worked directly with him to build the site.

The chief is a much younger man than the village dignitaries I had previously met. Best guess is that he is in his mid to late forties. He became chief a few years ago when his father passed away. Most often the office of chief is passed from father to eldest son. Occasionally it will pass to the chief's eldest brother or nephew if the chief himself has no son. On rare occasions when the chief has no son, brother or nephew, the village elders will debate and select a new chief from amongst themselves. As of yet, I have not come across any cases in which the title has passed to a woman.

It is customary when meeting a chief to offer a gift. I brought the South Africa PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) calendar Peace Corps gave us when we arrived. It was free for me and is a small representation of what we as CHOP (Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Program) volunteers are here to assist with.

Before leaving the meeting the chief's spokesman expressed that the chief would like to give me a new Setswana name, Mmakau (Ma-k-ow-oo). The best English translation for the word is "mother of cow," but there is not really an English translation that expresses the meaning of the word. The name itself has a long history in this area--a history that I'm still researching. But because of the importance of the name to the village, it is a great honor to be given the name.

With the chief's blessing and good wishes, I have officially become a member of the community. I will now be able to come to the chief with any needs or grievances, and I fully believe that he will be a partner and an asset in my work with the community.

I consistently feel the welcoming embrace of my new home and couldn't be happier here. I look forward to building more relationships with the people here and being a part of their lives.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Taxis and Shopping Towns

Every other week the five of us in our cluster travel to Bella Bella
(Warmbad) to shop for groceries and whatever else we might need. In my
village, we have a few small stores that sell the essentials--bread,
milk, etc. There are also a few fruit stands that sell your basic fruits
and vegetables like apples, bananas, onions and potatoes. But for a
wider selection and a cheaper selection it is better to go into town.

Bella Bella was the closest shopping town to us during training and is
thus the town we are most familiar with. However, I am near several
shopping towns at my new site and am planning to work my way around to
each before picking my favorite.

Getting to Bella Bella is always an adventure. For me the trip requires
two taxis. When you hear the word "taxi", drop all of your preconceived
notions of what a taxi is and isn't. In South Africa taxis are the
equivalent to a 15 passenger van--taxis for hire are only available in
the cities. Most taxis are in various states of repair. I've been in
taxis with leaky roofs and doors, taxis with holes in the floor, and
taxis that you could swear were held together by duct tape and a prayer
(except that duct tape is not available in SA and the alternative is not
nearly as strong or versatile). I've also ridden in new taxis that are
very nice and comfortable, but those taxis are harder to come by.

When you take a local taxi in town or the villages nearby, chances are
the taxi will not be full for the entire journey and you will have the
luxury of elbow room. This is usually the case with my first taxi to the
village where my closest volunteer lives. I typically meet her at the
taxi rank there. My village does not have a taxi rank so catching a taxi
means you flag it down as it passes.

Once at the taxi rank we must wait for a full to nearly full taxi before
we begin the 45 minute trek to Bella Bella. Long distance taxis will not
leave without a full taxi in order to make the most profit per day. This
can mean waiting for over an hour or more for the taxi to leave. If the
taxi is not full or if people on the taxi want to get off before the
intended destination, the driver will take the back road to Bella Bella.
This means that we forgo the highway in the hopes of picking up more
passengers along the way. This also means a dirt road for half of the
journey. As the taxis become full of people and packages, they become
hot and cramped very quickly. And as we have often found, fifteen
passengers is more a suggestion than a guideline. I've been on a couple
of taxis now with more than twenty passengers. And the driver, well,
let's just say I think a few of them should have their licenses revoked.

Bella Bella itself is a resort town with a large resort and game
preserve. It was originally an Afrikaner town and has a high Afrikaner
population. The towns original name is Warmbad so named for the natural
warm baths there. Three grocery stores and several smaller shops make up
the main streets.

When we go, we make a day of it--shopping for non-perishables when we
first arrive, breaking for lunch, and shopping for the perishables after
lunch. The key to shopping is to make sure that you don't buy more than
you can carry or more than will fit on a taxi with fourteen other
passengers. Planning ahead is key.

It is also important to head to the taxi rank by at least 3PM. You may
be waiting a long time for a taxi and you don't want to arrive home
after dark since you have to walk from the road to your house--a ten
minute walk for me. The nice part about coming back to the village is
that it is only one taxi ride for me. It is not necessary to go back to
the taxi rank in my friend's village as I can get dropped off in my
village when we pass through.

It is a full day that can be very long and very tiring, but it is always
good to meet up with the other volunteers, enjoy a nice lunch, and buy
things like oatmeal and peanut butter. (Not sure if I would have
survived this long without peanut butter. It is a staple of Peace Corps

The key to shopping days--patience. It is the key to a lot of things
here. Patience. Practice patience always.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Palm Sunday at the African Catholic Church

My new host family attends the African Catholic Church. I’ll be honest that on coming to South Africa I had no idea that there was an African wing of the Catholic Church. I assumed that all Catholic churches in South African were Roman Catholic. There is a Roman Catholic Church in our community, but as of yet I have not met anyone who attends services there.

I had the opportunity to join my host family for the service on Palm Sunday—a four hour service that was much too much for my American sensibilities of time. The entire service was in Setswana including the Book of Common Prayer. Although I am growing more familiar with the language, I found that I didn’t understand majority of the service as the phrases “I ask for”, “I want to buy”, “I come from” and “I am a volunteer with the Peace Corps” were not used. I did pick up on “Modimo” (God), “Godimo” (sky/heaven), “Morena” (Christ) and “Jesu” (Jesus)

Despite the language barrier, I found that there was much that was similar to experiences I have had in Catholic churches before and also found elements of a few other familiar denominations sprinkled in here or there. I knew many of the hymns, some prayers were familiar, and the knowledge of the Spirit’s presence was a constant.

It is the tradition of the African Catholic Church to wear black and white. The women must wear a skirt and cover their heads while the men must wear a jacket. Unfortunately I did not bring a black or white skirt with me and all of my head scarves are multicolored. So I looked slightly out of place with my black and cream flowered skirt and my red and black checked head scarf—not only was I not in black and white but my wardrobe obviously did not match either.

My host-brother is an altar boy and my host-mother sings in the choir so our family went early for the Palm Sunday procession from the priest’s home to the church. After a prayer, the altar boys led the way with the crucifix and the incense leading the way followed by the priests and the rest of the assembly. My host-mother lent me a prayer book and I managed to fumble my way through the hymns while trying not to take a tumble as we traversed the dirt roads to the church.

Here I was left to my self for moments as my host-brother continued on to the altar and my host-mother made her way to the choir loft (not really a loft but a set of chairs set apart from the rest of the assembly). My host-mother’s older sister took charge of me and led me to sit with her. I soon discovered that I was sitting with the gogos (Setswana for grandmother). Next to our section were the older mothers (40s and 50s). In the section next to the mothers were the young women. And the men sat in the section farthest from us. If anyone hadn’t noticed yet that there was a white American oddly dressed in the assembly, they noticed now.

The sanctuary itself was a large room with the altar one step above the main floor. In the wall just behind the altar the builder had omitted bricks to form a cross (the most beautiful part of the sanctuary to me). Before the altar, wooden folding chairs divided the room into the four sections (gogos, older mothers, young women and men). There was also a section up at the front for the children and the previously mentioned separate section for the choir (entirely made up of women). The seats only filled half of the room. The back half was empty. I was told that on Good Friday they had to rent extra chairs because so many people attended the service. The roof of the sanctuary was made of corrugated tin, as most roofs in this part of the country are.

A few highlights from the service itself:

The signing was amazing. All acapella. Every man woman and child singing with full voice, abandoning themselves to the song. Whether they could carry a tune or not, they gave it their full heart. It was a beautiful sound that carried surprisingly well in the dismal acoustics of the place. Village life is full of song. You can almost always hear singing off in the distance from a church service, a funeral, a wedding, someone’s stereo—always music. Many of the people I know in my daily life often unconsciously drift into song as they work. It is as if there is a natural rhythm to the place that undulates just beneath the surface.

The church broke bread together in Holy Communion administered by the priest. I was prepared not to participate since I am not confirmed in the Catholic Church. But my host-mother and others insisted that I take part since I am a Christian. There was a five rand fee to participate in communion—with current exchange rates, that’s about 50 cents. I was initially surprised by the fee but soon realized that the money would cover the expense of the communion preparations. I went forward, paid the fee, received the priest’s blessing and received the body and blood of Christ. (The body a typical wafer used at most Catholic churches and the blood a very cheap wine that tasted like rubbing alcohol mixed with a few grapes.)

Towards the end of the service, my host-mother was asked to introduce me to the congregation. This meant that I had to go forward and greet everyone in Setswana. I managed a few sentences of greeting and thanks and received the approval of the congregation. Although slightly embarrassed, I was glad to be introduced. That’s fifty more people in the community who know me and are aware of my presence. Each meeting goes a long way towards integrating me into the community. A daily process for the coming two years.

There are many different churches in the village, and I plan to visit as many as I can. I want to get a broad understanding of what fellowship looks like here. Church and religion are very important to village life. I hope that I will gain a deeper understanding of its importance within this new culture and find ways to adopt it into my life here.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

My New Home

One week ago today, we swore in 25 new Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa. It was a simple ceremony for such a momentous occasion in all of our lives. However, looking back on it, a simple ceremony seems most appropriate to celebrate an entrance into a time of service and simple living.

Following the ceremony and lunch, we split ways to go to our permanent sites. I am in a village just south of our training village and about 45 minutes to an hour north of Pretoria. I am working with the district Victim Empowerment Program (VEP). (More about my service organization here.) My new homestay is wonderful. I have a cozy, two-room house. The bedroom is 12’x12’ and the front room is 12’x9’. The front room is where I do all of my cooking, and for now, I hangout in the bedroom as it’s the larger of the two rooms. I have electricity but no running water. My host-mother recently had an electric pump put in for the underground well and is working on getting a JOJO installed. A JOJO is a huge barrel that stores water. Once we have it up and running, the water that comes through the pump should be a lot cleaner. The water is safe for drinking but sandy. I’m very grateful for the Brita filter that Peace Corps gave us.

I’ve down-graded in pit latrine quality, but overall it’s not as bad as it could be. The pit latrine is about 100 meters away from my house, so no holding it in. When you got to go, you better go. The walls are entirely made of corrugated tin (as are my roof and most other roofs in this area), and I’m just a little too tall to be able to stand up completely in it. I had become rather used to the government built latrines in our training village. The pits were deeper which meant for less smell and less bugs. Yet in comparison, I know I have still got it pretty good.

My host-mother, Mma Kgafela, is a Setswana and Life Orientation (LO) teacher at the local middle school. She is intent upon helping me learn Setswana which I am very appreciative of. Life Orientation is a cross between health and life skills. I have to say that she is a truly unique and amazing woman. I have enjoyed our conversations very much. She is intent upon introducing me to the community and the community to me. Sunday she took me to the African Catholic Church that she attends and introduced me as her guest there. My experience there is another posting to come later on.

I thoroughly enjoy my host-brother Paposi. Papi is actually the son of Mma Kgafela’s younger sister who died when Papi was eight; he is now twenty. Papi is studying plumbing at a trade school in Pretoria, but also has plans for entering the priesthood. He has been an altar boy at the church for the past five years. He loves gospel music and loves to laugh. I imagine that I will have many stories to tell about Papi over the next few years. I feel very blessed to be in this new homestay. I have lived in so many places over the past several years that my definition of “home” has been stretched many times over. I think home is a state of acceptance and belonging. It is a place of comfort and of safety. And I think that right now I can easily say that this—this is home.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Zionist Afrikaner

Today, I went with my host-mother Elise to Hammenskraal to by supplies for the spaza shop she runs from her home. Elise has a 1980 something (maybe early ‘90s) Nissan “buggy” (in SA pick-up trucks are typically referred to as vans, buggies or bakis, never trucks). The passenger seatbelt was broken and the dash meters did not work. No defrost to deal with the early morning mist. And Elise’s friend riding in the bed of the truck.
We thankfully made it to Hammenskraal in one piece. Our first stop was the chicken market—a tiny cement building located behind a petrol (gas) station and slightly hidden from the main street. Our aim was to buy chicken feet, livers and heads. Despite the already ridiculous scene of the vegetarian surrounded by five liter bags full of chicken heads and buckets of chicken feet, the whole scene officially became ridiculously awkward when the only other white person—a six-foot something Afrikaner—came over to speak to me.

Previous to this moment, I had been doing my best to have conversation in broken Setswana and English while Elise waited in the queue. I found myself as the novelty of the chicken market—the white American woman speaking Setswana. (This was not the first time nor do I imagine will it be the last time that I find myself such a novelty.) The Afrikaner—he never told me his name—came up and began speaking Afrikaans to me just as Elise returned from the queue. I was taken aback as I had not noticed him until then. I told him that I did not speak Afrikaans, and upon hearing my accent he asked where I was from. I told him I was from the US and gave him the brief overview of Peace Corps. (We are now all fairly good at rattling this off in both English and our target language.) Elise was obviously uncomfortable (as was I) with the Afrikaners’ presence and remembered that she forgot to order the livers. She went back to the queue and I was left with the Afrikaner.

Awkward conversation continued in which I learned that he was a member of the Zionist Church—a predominately black church in SA that has mixed cultural, ancestral practices with Christianity. (From what I have gathered, the Zionist Church is one of the largest denominations in SA.) According to my new Afrikaner friend being a Zionist meant that everything was okay between him and the black people of SA. However, watching his interaction with others in the tiny market said that this was clearly not the case. His attempt at joking banter in Afrikaans with others in the market was obviously not well received.
Finally he returned to his lorry (delivery truck)—which the point when I came to understand why he was in the market in the first place—but before we could leave, he returned. Apparently he had been on the phone with his boss—also a Zionist—and had been working some sort of deal for Elise to get a discount on chicken, um, products if she left her phone number so that I could be contacted later on. My new friend wanted to take me in his lorry to I’m not really sure where to meet the head of the Zionist Church.

Elise and I decided it was best to leave without leaving a phone number for the unnamed Afrikaner. I didn’t think Peace Corps would appreciate me road-tripping in the lorry of an unnamed man. I didn’t like the idea very much either.

At this point in our stay in South Africa, we have had very little interaction with Afrikaners. This was only the third Afrikaner that I have had any sort of extended conversation with. However we are often spoken to in Afrikaans by black South Africans who assume that we are Afrikaners. During these times, I struggle with a deep desire not to be associated with the Afrikaaners. I want it known that I am an American and was not part of what happened here. The sins of Apartheid are not my sins.

It is difficult not to sit in judgment upon the Afrikaners and the South African English who allowed racism and prejudice to drive a huge chasm through the heart of this country—a rift that has not healed and will likely not heal for many generations. It is difficult to find any sort of love for them when I see the great poverty that still exists in the rural areas largely due to Apartheid. It is difficult to not say “them” and “those people,” remembering that my forefathers also set up awful systems of trade and politics that counted other people as less than human and certainly less than white. It is hard to come from a place where a nation gathered the courage to elect a black man as president. It is hard knowing that for much of my generation the color of that man’s skin had nothing to do with why we did or did not vote for him. It is hard not to think of myself as the better person, and it is hard to be a vessel of peace.

I believe this is an issue that I will struggle with through the length of my service in SA. But it is important that I find my place within all of the “tribes” of South Africa—white and black—because healing the rifts of racism is part of our culture that desperately needs to be shared with SA. As many paces as we in the States have still to take to fully heal the rifts, SA has that many more. I come to believe more each day that I am here to be a vessel of peace and healing, though I have no idea what that ends up looking like at the end of the day. I am hopeful that God will clearly define that role as I seek His direction for my service here. It is much more than stepping out on principle; it’s stepping out of faith.

Site Visit

This last week we went on site visits to meet with the organizations we will serve over the course of the next two years. We also had the opportunities to meet with our home-stay families and see the housing that is being prepared for our arrival at the first of April.

The five days of site visit were some of the hardest I have had since my arrival in South Africa.
Let me first say that my organization is great. I am working with a victim support center that specializes in working with domestic violence and rape victims—two huge issues in South Africa. Most domestic violence here goes unreported as women often are not aware of their rights or are afraid of stepping outside the bounds of culture and tradition. And in South Africa the incidence of rape is the highest in the world. (I should note here that the incidence of rape amongst Peace Corps volunteers in South Africa is very low.)

The support center is staffed by some amazingly strong and fiery women who are very passionate about preventing abuse and helping to protect victims in our community. Almost all are volunteers who receive a small monthly stipend. A large percentage of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in SA do not have the funds to pay staff and rely heavily on government stipends. This creates a lot instability and turnover for many organizations, but finding reliable funding and donors outside of government grants can be very difficult here.
The center is currently in the process of completing a shelter that will be used as temporary housing and a safe house for victims of abuse. The shelter was intended to be completed in January, however, life can move a lot slower here and deadlines and contracts can become very flexible. I know my co-workers are very frustrated that the shelter is not yet complete, but they have little ability to speed the process.

On my visit I heard rumblings that once the shelter is complete the Department of Social Services plans to take over the center making it a government run organization. This is a great plan for the center as it will steady their funding stream, apply needed structure to the organization and provide steady pay for the staff. However, I am slightly concerned about what my position will be with the organization at that point. I feel that my role with the organization as it stands is to assist in developing the organizational structure and policy and to assist in building a reliable network between organizations in the community that work to assist victims of violence. However, when Social Services steps in, they will fill that role, leaving me and my skill set not being fully utilized for the rest of my Peace Corps service. I’ve expressed this concern to Peace Corps, and they seem willing to work with me, the support center, and my community to make sure that everyone is getting the most out of my placement.

My current home-stay is an entirely other matter. Actually I do not have a home-stay as Peace Corps is in the process of finding me a new home. To make a long story short, the home originally found for me was very shady. Peace Corps SA requires that PCVs stay in stand-alone houses separate from the host-family home. During site visit, I found that my house was not yet ready for me, and I was offered my host-parents’ room to stay-in for the few days of my visit. Soon after I arrived, I discovered that my host-father (mid-thirties) spoke little English and was drunk—a condition that persisted for most of my visit. I also discovered that my host-mother (also in her thirties) runs a “spaza” shop out of her home and rents the empty rooms in the main house. Unlike the “tuck shop” on the property where I have been staying during training, the spaza shop seems to serve a lot of seedy characters.

There are many stories to tell about my no-longer host-family. Fights between my host-mother and father (not actually married to each other). My drunken host-father accosting me about teaching him English. His drunken friends hanging out around the house. My host-mother demanding a ridiculously huge amount for electricity every month (electricity in SA is very cheap due to government subsidies). And to top it off, finding out upon my return that my host-mother lied to Peace Corps saying that she was the only person living on the property and hiding the spaza. It became clear after the last bit of information that my host-mother is an opportunistic woman and planned to make financial gains from having an American living with her.

Peace Corps will be working over the coming week to find me a new living arrangement. In the mean time, we move ever closer to swearing-in on April 2nd. I am looking forward to officially being a Peace Corps Volunteer and leaving the hectic schedule of training behind. By that time I should also have more frequent internet access and be able to post blogs as I write them. But until then...

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Insects, Roosters and Donkeys

Beetles, spiders, grasshoppers and unfortunately cockroaches come in all shapes and sizes here. I’ve seen grasshoppers the length of my hand, beetles the size of my big toe and spiders almost as flat as a sheet of paper. And I am fascinated by all of them. The extra big cockroaches and I do not live in peace. But luckily there is a can of Doom (the Raid of SA) in each and every room. Unfortunately this means the kitchen too. Often Doom is stored in cupboards right next to the food. One of my peers was so unfortunate as to sit down to her morning bowl of oatmeal and find that it was laced with bug spray.

We’ve seen a vast number of interesting new bug bites and rashes. Mosquitoes have been a constant pest and have proved to be my greatest annoyance out of the insect kingdom. We are not in a malaria area, however, so thankfully mosquito bites cause no more annoyance than they would in the states. This also means that I don’t have to take malaria medication major side effects of which are nightmares or intensely real dreams and increased sensitivity to the sun.

I will say that I am fortunate to be in a house that is kept very clean and in which we close up the house early in the evening so we don’t receive unwanted visitors. (This also means that it takes the house a long time to cool off on hot days.) Others have not been so fortunate. Another one of my peers stays in a house with insulation—a nice exchange to the heat from the tin roofs, but with consequences of its own. The insulation is exposed allowing for all sorts of insects to roam about it freely and thus fall below especially at night when the lights go out. My peer spent the first three weeks of home-stay being eaten alive at night—problem finally solved when we received our bed nets.

Life in our village also means farm animals and lots of them. There is the chorus of roosters that crow at midnight and then again at three and then again at five and then periodically throughout the day. There are the hens with their chicks that run freely from yard to yard, but are smart enough to know who to come home to when they are hungry. There are the dogs who are the family pets, and then there are the dogs that are the family scourges. Our dog is a “notty” dog because he attacks the chickens. This means he stay chained to one of the trees in the backyard and is generally treated very poorly.

My favorites of the farm animals are the cows and the donkeys. Cows here are a sign of wealth. Every morning one of the herders drives a group of about ten cattle (including calves) up the road past our house, and every evening he drives them pack. I especially enjoy this herd because of their cow bells. I enjoy the clank-clank as they pass by. But cows do not just roam the dirt road by my house, they can also be found on the main roads connecting the villages. We frequently have to slow to a stop because of cattle in the road. Amusingly there are many “cattle crossing” signs about, but I have not once seen cattle cross at the crossing. They tend to cross everywhere but there.

On stressful/bad days, the donkeys can make everything better. I truly think they are the silliest animals on earth. They don’t actually do much but graze, stand, and roll around in the sand, but all those actions just seem comical. They’re cute but ugly all at the same time, and really their rolls in the sands are quite hysterical to watch. I think in personality our donkeys are somewhere between Eeyore and Donkey from Shrek, but they bring me joy just the same.

I can’t wait to have enough bandwidth to post pictures of all these creatures for you to see. There not quite the fauna I was expecting to find in Africa, but I enjoy them all the same.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Meeting the Ndebele King

Well, we didn’t actually meet the king, but we met his son the prince and the rest of the royal family. The king had to leave for a meeting before we arrived. This has been a common theme in our training as many things don’t exactly happen the way they were planned and we learn to live in flex time. In very general terms, time flexes and flows a little more here than it generally does in the U.S.

The Ndebele people are one of the many tribes in South Africa. Generally they are thought of as being artisans demonstrated to us by the rich beauty of their beadwork and their beautifully painted houses. The Ndebele originally lived in an area north of Pretoria, but were moved from their ancestral grounds during Apartheid. Much like the move of Native Americans to the reservations, tribes were moved to villages and townships outside of the areas where whites wanted to settle.

There are many traditional formalities observed when meeting a chief or a king. For women it means wearing a dress or a skirt and covering your head and possibly shoulders depending on the tradition of the specific tribe. The day we went it was ridiculously hot, but despite the oppressive heat, many of the Ndebele women wore thick flannel blankets displaying the Ndebele colors around their shoulders. The women and the men sat separately during the meeting. For our group is was the first time that we had seen the subservient female tradition prevalent in most South African tribal cultures so obviously displayed. Many of us had caught queues from various interactions, but it was the first time that it had been so prominent before us. At the end of the meeting the men sang and danced together, and then the women sang and danced together. During the meal that followed, the men and the women mingled, but the hierarchy was imprinted in our mind. It became a major topic during our question and answer session with the prince and a few of the elders.

For most of us growing up in a post-women’s lib America, the cultural inequality between the sexes is a source of much discomfort both for the women and the men in our group. Among the women, several of us are struggling to find our footing and to find the balance of sharing our belief in gender inequality while showing a respect for the culture. The amount of subservience varies from tribe to tribe, village to village, etc. This can at times make it even more of a struggle to find the balance of how to be culturally appropriate in the village we live in but then travel to another village and be culturally appropriate in that setting. For women this also means more unwanted attention.

Despite the aforementioned, there is much beauty in the Ndebele culture. So many traditions with so much meaning and purpose. The prince was incredibly welcoming and gracious to us. We are always welcomed with so much love and openness, and we are honored over and over again by community after community and group after group. The spirit of “Ubuntu” which literally translates to “I am because you are” is pervasive wherever we go. And it is a sentiment that echoes throughout the cultural traditions and every community we have come in contact with.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dumelang (Hello) from South Africa

Rebaona (Reb-ah-ō-nah). In Setswana it means “we all belong to God.” Rebaona is my Setswana name given to me by my language teacher Botsang (Bōt-sahng). It is also the name of Botsang’s daughter.

As I think of all the many things that I could share, I think first of this, we all belong to God. Over and over as I have met new people, seen new places, tasted new foods, and experienced a new kind of simple life—this has been impressed upon me. We all belong to God.

As of the writing of this post, I have been in South Africa for about 2 ½ weeks. (Since we have limited internet access, I am writing posts in Word and plan to post them on Blogger when I have the opportunity.) I am staying with a woman name Motsogo (Mōt-sō-hō) and her two great-grandchildren Jerry, age 3, and Shantile, age 4. Motsoho owns a “tuck shop” which is on the same property as our house, and her daughter Shirley lives in the room attached to the shop. A tuck shop is similar to an American convenience store, but ours is a very small shop compared with others in the area. Of the 25 people in our training group, most are staying in the same village as I am where Setswana (the language I am learning) and Sepedi are the primary languages. The rest of the group is in a nearby village where more people speak Zulu and Swati, the languages that portion of the group are learning. In total, South Africa has eleven recognized national languages. Our training group meets almost daily for training sessions at the college of education in a village between the two home-stay villages.

My mma (mother), Motsogo, is a very kind and very gentle woman. She shows me in many little ways how glad she is to share her home with me. When we arrive home from training in the evenings, she frequently asks me to get out my notebook so she can see what Setswana we learned. We sit on the porch as the sun sets, and she helps me to study. Her frequent “alright, darling” is encouraging and endearing.

Jerry and Shantel are cousins. Shantel’s mother (Shirley’s daughter) is going to school in Pretoria, about a three hour drive from our village), and Jerry’s parents take care of the family’s other tuck shop in Jo’burg. They are both friendly and sweet children. They’ve already won my heart. I have been teaching them “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”, and they in turn teach me Setswana songs.

Our home is fixed up with plenty of modern conveniences such as electricity and television, but I still have plenty of opportunity to enjoy the nuances of bucket-bathing and the pit toilet. Neither is actually that bad. I truthfully enjoy bucket-bathing as it cools you off more than anything else. We are still in the summer months here, and tin roofs make for very hot houses which make hot days even hotter. I am slowly adjusting to the heat, however. Hand-washing the laundry is not that bad once you find the rhythm of the chore. I find I usually walk away with a sense of accomplishment. (We will see if I still feel that way after a few more months of it.)

Food is a whole new adjustment. The two main staple foods in my new home are pap and meat (bogobe le nama). Pap is similar to grits, but add about four more cups of cornmeal and take away all seasoning. It’s very thick and heavy. Meat is mostly chicken or beef—chicken is usually boiled and served with the skin and beef is most often stewed in our home with big chunks of fat. My favorite new food that I have come across is called merogo which literally means vegetable, but commonly refers to a kind of African spinach. It looks much more like grass than what Americans would commonly think of as spinach. My mma served it stewed with tomatoes and onions. It was amazing.

It hardly seems that it has only been two and a half weeks. Staging in Philadelphia and leaving my family in Lubbock seem so much farther away in my memory than that. I will write more in depth on the many experiences and discovery’s I am making later, but I’ll leave this post as an overview. Many blessings to you.