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.