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.