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.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Rising of the Sun

Hello from Peace Corps Staging in Philadelphia.

Today was a day of morning site-seeing and afternoon ice-breakers, orientation and scheduling. It all seems such a jumble of pictures and information that I hardly know how to share it with you.

We are a group of 25 diverse and yet similar people mostly in the age range of 20-30 with one in the over 50 crowd. Over the afternoon and early evening, we turned in forms and filled out more forms. We talked about why we wanted to join the Peace Corps and PC history. We talked about our anxieties and our aspirations. We brainstormed risk management and prevention. We received detailed schedules for the next day.

Tomorrow begins at 7:30am when we walk to the clinic for a yellow fever vaccination and the first dosage of malaria medication. After, we return to the hotel, load all of our bags onto buses and drive to JFK in NYC. We leave from JFK around 5:00PM EST and arrive in Johannesburg around 5:00PM South African time on the 4th. We'll then board another bus to take us to the dormitory just north of Pretoria where we will spend the first week.

As I walked through Independence Hall this morning and viewed the Liberty Bell, it struck me how incredibly appropriate that our staging event was held here. This is a place of beginnings. This morning, the tour guide at Independence Hall told a story about the speaker's chair. On the headrest of the chair is a carved sun that sits on a horizon. Benjamin Franklin would comment that he never knew whether the sun was setting or rising. Then on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, Franklin said that he had finally figured it out--the sun was rising.

It's an appropriate sentiment. The sun is rising on a new day for all of us here.