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…