Lobola Negotiations Ceremony

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A spherical traditional bowl called ‘ukhamba’ decorated with intricate geometric pattern is passed around the ancestral rondavel as men patiently wait their turn to sip ‘umqombothi’, traditional Zulu beer made from maize meal. Men both old and young kneel to the ground in sign of respect as they take generous sips. My gogo had started brewing umqombothi four days prior. Its consistency is thick and milky like that of holiday eggnog, and tastes like Korean rice wine. The effects of this beloved alcoholic beverage is potent and it is becoming quite apparent in the elders’ balances. Did I mention, it’s only around noon? An entire industrial drum of umqombothi is suppose to last the weekend and the next for my host brother’s ‘lobola’ negotiations ceremony, but at the rate which the ukhamba is going around, I have my doubts.

Lobola is the practice of offering cows or equivalent sum of money from the groom to the bride’s family. The going rate in Zulu communities here is 11 cows for a bride. This number may go up or down a cow depending on certain factors. For example, if you want to marry the daughter of a chief, you may have to cough up a dozen more cows than the status quo. If the woman has a child out of wedlock, you may knock off a cow or two. Most young men do not have 11 cows at disposal so the payment of lobola is stretched out across many years. And as times change, so do traditions so it is acceptable to pay the cash equivalent instead of actual livestock. This would be ideal especially for people living in the cities. Some cows can cost up to R10,000 ($1,000) each. Therefore, many men will work well in to their 30’s and even 40’s to pay off the lobola before they are able to have the official wedding ceremony. Most couples will have children well before the lobola is paid off and the wedding concluded with an official ceremony. Expensive and time consuming, the practice of lobola appears to express the man’s determination and promise to provide for the woman and their family.

Brandon, a fellow PCV in my area, came over to my site to observe the ceremony with me. We were sitting on a makeshift wooden bench on the newly dung polished floor of the ancestral rondavel, lost in the thick of all the men from the village who came to celebrate the occasion.The men sat on chairs and benches on one side of the rondavel and the women sat on grass mats on the other. While basking in fire smoke eminating from the center of the hut and the fog billowing in from outside, we watched and listened to all the chaos surrounding us. My host father lit a bundle of some traditional herbs bringing silence to the hut. He spoke a few words of prayer to the ancestors and a few more to my host brother the groom what seemed like his blessings. After some singing, the procession moved out the door; it was time to carry all the food gifts from the groom to the bride’s house. The goats were properly cloaked in thick blackets. 25kg bags of rice, beans, maize meal, sacks of onions, potatoes, butternut, crates of beer and bottled soft drink were all too precariously balanced on women’s heads as we proceeded. Brandon and I were emptihanded at first but my host sister gave her plastic bags for us to carry so that we felt like we were contributing. Other people from the community hollered “We duuuuuuummmaaaaaa!” and cheered in blessings.

The weather was not on our side. White mist, fog and drizzle made the procession less than ideal and slippery at times but we all arrived in one piece to the bride’s home. I am still amazed at how not a single onion was dropped. The bride’s family welcomed us with loud cheers. We were ushered into a smaller rondavel, about fifty of us and three goats, packed in like snow. Being one of first ones to enter the hut, Brandon and I were slowly backed up to the other end of the hut. I saw Brandon almost squatting so that he was not literally sitting on an old man. Body on body and cornered, we had no choice but to join in the passionate singing and sway to the rhythm of the group. While I did not know the meaning of the songs, the lyrics were repetitive enough that I really got into it, clicks and all. I felt like a Zulu?

Afterwards, it was time to eat so we were ushered into the party tent where we dined on rice and curry and of course all the fixings that come on the side like butternut, cole slaw, and beetroot. Soon after the food and dessert, came the Zulu tribal war dance where men formed a circle and anyone who wanted to would come inside the circle and stomp. This requires you to bring up your leg up past your shoulders and forcefully slam it down to the floor, all the while keeping up with the fast beat set by the circle of men. Harder than it sounds, it is spectacular to watch. I eventually scrounged enough courage to go into the circle and attempted like three stomps before retreating back to my seat out of embarassment. I definitely gave everyone a good laugh. Good thing Brandon didn’t take a video of the whole thing!… No, he did. :/

The day after the announcement of the passing of the great Nelson Mandela, there we were, a white guy and an Asian guy, clapping, Zulu stomping in the mosh pit, eating boiled goat parts with Zulus in rural KZN. At one point, I leaned over to Brandon and asked him Do you think these people have ever imagined in their whole lives to see a white guy and an Asian guy in the corner of a lobola party? Most people in my community would have never imagined such a sight. Would Mandela ever imagined such a sight himself?

The actual negotiations part of the function occurred the following weekend, on the same day that Nelson Mandela was buried in his hometown of Qunu. Only men are involved in the negotiations so the male figures of both of the families– fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and uncles– surrounded the cattle krawl to view the cows in question. I counted 7 cows so the rest of the cows must be promised at a later time. I wish I knew what they were talking about. The discussions around the krawl was very gentle, humble and respectful.

The family slaughtered another goat for the occasion. The goat was quickly skinned and butchered. One of the boys that slaughtered the goat came back with a platter with two organs on it: the liver and the gall bladder. The father of the bride was offered a piece of raw liver which he took ceremoniously. Then my host father took the goat’s gall bladder full in its contents and spilled some on the father in-law’s feet as well as his lips. And lastly, he pinned the emptied bile sac ballooned on the lapel of the father in-law’s jacket. All the while, the ukhamba full of umqombothi is making its rounds like no one’s business.

The rest of the goat was boiled and offered to the bride’s family. The tradition is that the bride’s family must divide up the goat meat and offer a portion back to the groom’s family. How nice! I entered in a little predicament during this part, though. After the goat was divided, when it was time to feast, the in-laws wanted me to join them and eat the goat from their side. I was conflicted. I didn’t want to seem like I abandoned my family, after all, I am an Ndlovu. So I tried to play dumb (something I have perfected overtime living here) and waited until my family started to feast on our portion of the goat. I hope I didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. I hope my playing dumb worked. On a side note, fresh goat meat is gooood. Just a dash of salt is all you need.

While all of South Africa were in a state of shock, struggling to come to terms with the expected but still devastating news of Nelson Mandela, I had the special opportunity to actually experience what Mandela would have wanted to see from his country: people of different colour and background sharing and learning the vastly different cultures and traditions that define this place as the Rainbow Nation. If I’m being honest, before coming to South Africa, the extent of my knowledge on the life and impact of Nelson Mandela was limited to a cursory connection to the subject of apartheid which I glossed over in my college studies and the apparent heroic impression he’s had on Oprah Winfrey. But after working and living here for almost 18 months, I am beginning to understand the near socially impossible feat one man was able to bring forth to an entire nation so ravaged by an institution of hate.

While zoning out in the midst of all the chaos during the ceremony, I could not help but to think about Nelson Mandela and for what he has done for me, personally. My being here is a direct influence of the MOU signed by Mandela and former President Bill Clinton in 1995 which established Peace Corps in South Africa, shortly after the abolishment of the apartheid government. Mandela’s core tenets of his political life, his ideals of reconciliation and forgiveness, inculcated in the plebian life, influenced the way I am treated and accepted in my community. This country could have been a much different place, a much intolerant place, close to that of Zimbabwe to the north. Thankfully that is not the case. And I thank Nelson Mandela. May he Rest In Peace.

The gallons upon gallons (litres upon litres, for followers of the metric system) of umqombothi was consumed without waste. With the last drop, so ended one of the major ceremonies that make up a Zulu wedding. There are many more ceremonies to come to fulfill the traditions for my host brother and his fiance. Luckily for everyone, this means more umqombothi!

Traditional Zulu bowl for umqombhothi.

Traditional Zulu bowl for umqombhothi.

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Water

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As winter rolls in the southern hemisphere, two things are on everyone’s mind: the cold and more importantly, water. At least here in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, winter is the dry season. The last rain dropped about a month ago and it doesn’t look like it will come back for a while. This is a problem when you live in a community that relies heavily on the rain. I, personally, depended almost entirely on the two rain water collection drums behind my room this whole time until now. Majority of the village pump water from the two currently operating boreholes. The lines around the boreholes are getting longer and women and children now waiting longer in the freezing cold to fetch their day’s water. Two boreholes for a population of 4000+ people. The borehole that would have serviced the homes on my side of the village is broken, and has been for a long time. During times like these, families here fetch water from the nearby ground spring.

Several weeks ago, my host family brought me some water seeing that I was running low. I asked where they had gotten it and they said from the spring. The spring water inside my white bucket seemed clean. It was clear, little darker than rain water, with only some bit of debris. But since I’m risk averse when it comes to water, I filtered most of it and boiled the rest. Curious, I decided to check out the spring. I was amazed by what I saw. The spring is located on a relatively flat field of deforested gum tree plantation. The source of the spring, the start, is only but a patch of mud field with a thin layer of idle water. You can see the plunge marks everywhere made by the cows and goats that regularly come to drink. I wonder what else they do after they quench their thirst. Some ways down, the water starts to miraculously move and couple steps below that, it runs at a speed that resembles a small stream. Corners of idle water are oily; mangled tree stumps and trash, unsightly. I saw couple of the tiny neighbor kids filling up 2 liter coke bottles along the spring. Down around the rocky area where the water drops, women were washing clothes.

Since then, I have been getting my water from the borehole at the primary school. I think the water from this borehole is safe. The water sometimes come out yellow when pumped after a weekend of inactivity, but most of the time is looks normal. The only problem may be the fact that the pit toilets are on the same level as the borehole. In fact, World Vision came 5 years ago, built new toilets down the hill to ensure that the ground water is not being contaminated, but they never finished the construction. I am still not sure what exactly was the problem but apparently, significant funds are required to finish what was left by World Vision. In any case, we are still using the old ones. The new toilets are currently collecting trash and serve as hideouts by kids. I try not to think on a microscopic level. The whole school uses the borehole and no one has gotten sick, including myself, so I am guessing the water is fine?

For storage, I have two 20 liter buckets and one 10 liter bucket. I cannot physically store more water than that because my room is the size of Nelson Mandela’s former cell (may he get well soon). I use the 10 liter bucket to transport water from the school, most of the time with the help of a learner. During the week days when the school is open, I have a steady liquid income of about 8 liters per day (the full capacity of 10 liters is a bit heavy for the learner). My daily expenditure is about 7 liters. Savings! Now, the weekends are problematic since the school is closed and I am forced to stretch whatever water I have over three days. Funny, I sometimes find myself elated, like as if all my problems have washed away, when they leave me with the key to the school gate because I can then wheelbarrow my clothes and do my laundry at the school. I, actually, really enjoy washing my clothes at school because it is an opportunity to show the village that I am here for the long hull, while breaking down gender norms being that washing clothes is considered a woman’s job here.

Now, while we’re on the topic of water, I should elaborate on exactly how much water I use on a daily basis. In South Africa, a standard water pitcher is 1.7 liters. For my bucket baths, I use two of these, one hot, one cold, which amounts to about 0.9 gallon. Ninth of a gallon inside the plastic basin in which I bathe, about the same diameter as a large Costco combo pizza, is only about an inch deep. Lately, however, I’ve been reducing my bath water to 1.5l hot, 1.5l cold. If I’m being honest, some days I try to save a whole pitcher by washing what us Peace Corps folks call “key zones”, that is your face, hair, feet… you know, the important parts. For washing a week’s worth of clothes, I use about 8 pitchers, 3 to soap, 5 to rinse. A pitcher a day for doing dishes, and another pitcher a day for drinking, cooking, and other miscellaneous activities. So in total per week, I use about 36 of the 1.7 liter pitchers, give or take, which is a little over 16 gallons for the week. If you took an 8 minute shower today, you just used up my week’s water supply! With a legitimate concern of running out of water, I’ve adopted some ways to conserve, like using hand sanitizer rather than washing my hands; boiling water only up to the boiling point; eating less foods that require boiling like rice and pasta; and buying watery fruits like tangerines and oranges instead of bananas.

In America, I was always a proponent of water conservation—5 minute showers, turning off the faucet when brushing teeth, turning off the faucet when other people are brushing their teeth… an annoying proponent, might I add. But living in a rural village made all that savings only but a drop in the bucket, pun totally intended. Vacation is coming up, and one thing that Peace Corps volunteers look forward to is a long hot shower. I will probably negate all the water I have saved in the past three months just by warming up the shower head. I’m from Southern California and how and how much water we use is unfathomable. Even our efforts to save and conserve seems like driving a Hummer hybrid to reduce gasoline consumption. But I guess that is the difference between first and third world. The difference is so stark.

There is a silver lining for my community which is the 1 million liter concrete reservoir that will provide taps, not to every house hold but every 20 meters or so, according to the rumor. Construction has started some time ago and they have currently put up the rebars. The reservoir itself is expected to be finished by the end of this year. However, the piping of the water from the municipality, up and over another village, to this new reservoir at my village may take couple more years. I am hopeful but realistically, I won’t benefit from piped water in my time of service. My biggest fear is the possibility of another World Vision toilet situation.

Now, to address the cold. Yep, it is cold.

“It is tart, it is stinky,…”

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At this very moment, I have something so valuable, I may very well be the only one to possess this in the continent of Africa.

Kimchi!

What is kimchi, you may ask? (You must be living under a rock, or in Africa 🙂 For those unfortunate souls, kimchi is that fermented (and still fermenting) cabbage in a spicy concoction of chilies, garlic, and other glorious ingredients, an ubiquitous side dish served with all Korean cuisine, hits every taste bud in your mouth. There’s a jar, or two,… no, a vat in every Korean household stored in a specially designed refrigerator. If short-grain rice is the staple of Korea, it is the staple to the staple. It is a health food that is gaining popularity across the West and I am told that apparently Trader Joe’s now carries it; it is the stuff that kept SARS from entering Korea, as legend says. I am not sure if there is another food from other parts of the world that parallels kimchi. Would it be the butter and cheese to Frenchmen’s baguette? It is tart, it is stinky, it can wake up a dead body in matter of seconds, and it is now sitting in my little fridge.

I, finally, received the package from my family sent more than a month ago. Kimchi is my comfort food that has never ceased to be a part of my diet for anytime longer than a day. I haven’t had it for more than 6 months now. Did I crave it, you ask? See, you crave Chipotle steak burrito with green tabasco sauce; you crave brownie a la mode; you crave a big hot bowl of pho with everything in it (minus the tripe); you crave McDonald’s $ menu. No, I did not crave kimchi. It is actually a biological necessity that in its absence causes physiological withdrawal symptoms comparable to that of a junkie. It haunts your dreams. If was rich, I would fund research and development in creating liquid kimchi to be injected intravenous. Thankfully I don’t have to do that because now you can buy kimchi in industrially sealed packages that can be, evidently, sent across the world to my little hut. Also, I am not rich– I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer. So you can imagine the emotional state I was in when I saw this glowing out of the box. Ok, it wasn’t actually THAT emotional but, I was excited.

After processing everything that was going on in my head, I finally decided to cut open the bag and satisfy my “craving”, as you may call, once and for all. God, it smelled… good. With the pair of chopsticks that my parents also sent (and yes, I haven’t used chopsticks for 6 months, but I still got it ! :), I direct one thing of kimchi into my mouth…

Nothing.

What’s going on here? Is something wrong with me? Maybe I am in shock or something. So I wait couple seconds and eat another thing of kimchi.

Nope, nothing. No sense of revelation, no hint of God-sent epiphany, no food-induced orgasm. No “mmm”s, no “aahh”s, no “oh man, this is gooooood.” Absolutely nothing. It may very well have been the pivotal moment that I would cherish until my time on this earth is over. It could have been the highlight of my Peace Corps service. But nope, nothing…

The revelation and epiphany did eventually come to me after staring long at the care package my family sent. I guess it wasn’t the kimchi at all. What I have been missing this whole time was my Mom’s. You see, my Mom never bought kimchi from the store. She always made it herself for my sisters and me because making it at home is cleaner, healthier, and tastes thousand times better. Another thing about kimchi is that it is communal; it is eaten from the same dish by everyone at the table. So, I’ve been missing eating with my family. I am not homesick. I just miss them.

But for now, this will do.

Written January 26, 2013

A Short Story: Unexpectedly Ends Up Sitting in Front of the Entire Village

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Everyday, I walk to school with my host sister, who happens to be the school’s admin clerk. Today, she tells me that there is a community meeting at 10 am, to talk about something in regards to water in the village. I was interested so I asked to attend this meeting but because it was during school hours, no one was able to accompany me. I decided to go anyway, thinking that I will just quietly stand in the back, and try to comprehend the agenda of the meeting through context and my very limited Zulu. I’m sure you can guess that is not how this played out…

As I left the school gates, a granny I’ve never met before called out to me and we exchanged the ubiquitous Zulu greeting. I asked her where she was going and she said she was going to the meeting. Excitedly, I told her that I was too and proceeded to walk with her. I was relieved that I was not going to be a total loner.

Half way through the walk, while making small talk (and I mean small) this granny reveals that she is the village “Induna”. WHAT! In South Africa’s tribal governing system, you have the king at the provincial level (in my case, the Zulu King) then the chief of the village, then the “induna” or the village headman (headwoman in my case). Side note: I was told that our village chief is also a woman, which is very rare (and so progressive… Good on us!).

I’ve been trying to meet the induna to introduce myself as the Peace Corps Volunteer since I arrived here, but my supervisor wanted my meet to be formal and was in the process of scheduling it. And here I am, asking the village induna herself what she ate for dinner last night, my go-to small talk topic. (Man, I need to increase my Zulu vocabulary beyond food items) Although, she was very excited to meet me and so happy hear me speak her tongue.

When we got to the meeting hall, I wanted to go in and take a seat but she stops me and asks me to wait for her. She takes a hold of my arm and leads me to the front of the hall, like a mom and her child in a movie theater, all the while the entire village is watching. And of course, she leads me up the stage and makes me sit right next to her facing the audience of the village. Behind my nervous yet courteous smile was me repeating to myself “oh no, oh no, oh no”. It turns out that the meeting was about building a 1 million liter concrete water reservoir, which will provide clean drinking water taps every 20 meter or so throughout the village. On the stage were representatives from the district, the municipality department, the contractor, the village elder, the induna, aaand me (who didn’t even know the agenda of the meeting).

Talk about being on the spot–at least the entire village now knows what I look like. On the bright side, towards the end of next year, I will no longer have to rely on rain or draw ground water from the bore hole. I just hope this isn’t one of those empty promises the community has seen time and again.

Month Three: Some Normal, Whole Lotta Crazy.

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The rain last night was the least of it. I have never in my life heard such loud thunders. There was a moment when the boom actually lifted my body…LIFTED my body, from the floor, which is not an overt exaggeration. Because my house is literally on the top of the hill, the highest residence of our village, I had real concerns that the lightning could accidentally kiss the ground. Around 6pm, the lights went out. It was a good thing that I had cooked already. Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to boil water for my bucket bath, but then who am I to impress here, the goats? And, what do you do when you don’t have light? It was my first time ever having to confront that question and realized there WAS nothing else to do but go to sleep. I did enjoy Nature’s spectacular light show, eventually got tired of the loud raindrops on my tin roof, and fell into my coerced slumber. The last thing I remember thinking before I fell asleep was how I am truly happy that I will have fresh clean rain water collection in the morning for my bath—and such is life here in deep rural South Africa.

It is now month three since I left California to embark on this great adventure, and it sure has been an adventure. I, still, sometimes do not believe that I am in Africa. Perhaps it’s due to the green pastoral environment that I live in or the western lifestyle that a newly developing country desperately strives for. Although I learned a great deal about Africa in college for my major, when I imagined “Africa” three months ago, I pictured either Lion King type grasslands (which we have some 10 hours from here in Kruger National Park), Tarzan-like thick jungle, sand dunes of the Sahara, or people on trucks with machetes and machine guns. I guess much of my perception of Africa was influenced by Disney, National Geographics, and CNN. You see, when I go into my “shopping town” some 10 km away, life looks semi-western. It used to be an Afrikaner town, so there are supermarkets, gas stations, banks and ATMs, brick school and municipality -buildings, pharmacies, a KFC, and a health clinic, just like a full-functioning town. People wear western clothes like shirts and jeans, although it’s not uncommon to see traditional attires, too. Most young people and few older people are able to speak English, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages. Since there are gas stations, there are also cars, and lot of them, driven by both white and black people.

But then again, whenever I see local women with faces painted red and white selling fruits; whenever I am offered a bowl of what looks like black oil stained pieces of carpet, only to be told that they are boiled cow stomach; whenever I sit next to a girl with a live chicken on her lap in a taxi ride; whenever I accidentally step on a giant earthworm initially thinking that it was a stick; whenever people are shocked and extremely happy to hear me speak Zulu; whenever young children call me “Sir”; whenever I am told by my host sister that there is a witch doctor granny down the path who rides a baboon at night in the forest and summons chickens to attack her bewitched victim (I’m serious); whenever these things happen, I am reminded that I am not in Kansas anymore (…,Toto).

The normal and the crazy included, I think I’m going to fall madly in love with this place.

Two and a half months later…

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Sanibonani friends! Actually there’s lot more to a South African greeting than that but perhaps I shall teach you all how to greet in Zulu in a later blog. I am not much of a blogger but I figured this experience merits some documentation, right? There was so much to say during training but I wasn’t able to get this blog started until I had access to the internet and figure out how to post on this blog. Shoot, it is more difficult than you
think!

The first two months of Pre-Service Training (PST) was GREAT! (Only if that was the truth) It was exhausting. Compared to other Peace Corps countries’ PSTs, ours was truncated by a whole month, and so our days were scheduled from 8am to 5 or 6pm with cultural, technical and language sessions. Information overload? It was good that I had no time to feel sad about being away from my friends, family, and life in the United States. There were definitely great parts to PST. For example, my host family of 7 children ages 3 to 19 and a gogo (granny) was loving and absolutely delightful, except when one of the boys like to chew on my chicken bones….

Ok, story time: It was my first dinner with my host family. They made pap (a solid grits-like staple), fried chicken, and some vegetables. It started great as the children made me say grace and watched me eat the steaming pap and greasy chicken until the last bite. When I said I was done, one of the boys takes my plate (I thought he was taking it to wash it) and without hesitation or question, starts to chew on the chicken bones that were once in my mouth. I couldn’t stop him, I was taken off guard. I was hungry that night and meticulously picked off all the meat from what we in America regard as scraps. I mean, I was ALL over that. But now it is in this kid’s mouth, being chewed to dry pulp. I didn’t make a big scene but I was mortified inside. I wanted to cry because here I am, this big American, allowing this little African boy chew on my chicken bones. Or at least it was exaggerated like that in my mind. Don’t worry, it turns out children and even adults in South Africa like to chew on bones and it is quite normal. From that night on, I picked off the meat using my fingers so that if they wanted the bones, it would at least be devoid of my saliva.

Throughout the rest of PST, I received six more shots, learned to bucket bath, visited the Vortrekker Monument in Pretoria and Apartheid Museum in Jo-berg, shaved my head, developed beasty thighs as I could not sit on my pit latrine due to constant presence of urine on the seats (there were 7 children, what do you expect?), saw ostriches, ate chicken feet, liver, intestines, spine, and head, and saw a man accused of raping a girl being put into a trunk of a car. I’ve only had one diarrheal experience, knock on wood, and shed two tears when I said bye to my host mom. Actually, PST was GREAT! (Tony the Tiger voice)

It is now week three at my permanent site in a small village in Southern KwaZulu Natal Province. I cannot give away the actual name of the village due to security policies but it is tucked between the great Drakensburg Mountains to the west and the beautiful coastal city of Durban to the east. The nearest major city that Facebook says I live by (an hour drive) is called Pietermaritzburg. Check it: endless rolling hills of pine, eucalyptus, and gum tree forests, with patches of green pastoral slopes dotted with dairy cows, seen as you drive on the winding roads that undulate through the bucolic countryside– Monet and Cezanne would have loved it here! Being in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are flipped so we are coming out of winter and going in to summer. I hear when it is hot, it is HOT, and when it is cold, it is COLD. It certainly has been COLD since I’ve been here, so I am not looking forward to when it gets HOT.

The family that I live with now is very nice and generous. There’s the gogo, the sister (who is also my school’s admin clerk) and her two boys, the brother and his finance and daughter, and three more boys from another sister who doesn’t live with us. I know, that was confusing but it appears to be common for children from different mothers live under the same roof while their parents work in the major cities. I do have electricity but I do not have a reliable water source on the compound. If the rainwater containers run dry, as it is now, I must get my water from the stream or from the borehole at my school. Animals! We have 13 cows, couple calves, I-don’t-know-how-many goats, like20 chickens and a dog who doesn’t like me. There’s the main house and two big ancestral rondavels on each side and a separate compound where I live on the premise. The pit latrine is on top of the hill where the cows sleep. I poop next to the cows 🙂

The primary school that I will be working at is on a side of a hill, about 10 minute walk from my place. Grades kindergarten to seven, there are about 375 students total. Thus far I have been in the classrooms and the office observing the school’s management style, infrastructure needs, teacher/student morale, and just got to understand the lives of the fellow educators and students. My first impression = “Holy S**T, what did I get myself into!” But I guess I wasn’t sent here to work at a perfectly functioning school, right? I will talk about the state of education in South Africa in a later blog. So that is where I am thus far.

To be able to follow my blog going forward, you will need to be familiar with some terminology. So, here we go.
—–
Ted’s Peace Corps Glossary

Bucket bath: noun or a verb. To wash or the process of washing one’s body to one’s best ability using a 27” diameter basin or a “bucket”, with only about 2-3” of water. One’s back is usually not reached, and thus not washed/cleaned. Gross, I know. Upon technical compliance, live demonstrations to come.

Pee bucket: noun. A bucket that is set aside for, you got it, pee. Most commonly for nightly uses inside your room as it is completely dark and sometimes unsafe to go out to relieve one’s bladder. #2 is a no-no, so you just gotta hold until morning. During training, I made fun of my female volunteer colleagues who lived by it, but now I use it daily as it is quite convenient. It’s actually amazing.

Rand: South African currency. About R8 to $1.

KZN: Kwa-Zulu Natal

Bakkie: A form of transportation (unsanctioned by Peace Corps) on the back of the truck.

Kumbis: taxi vans, sort of like the Boys’ & Girls’ Club vans, but smaller, dinkier, and uncomfortable as people and merchandise are packed and squeezed in — major public transportation that I will have to get used to. I will probably vent throughout my service about these taxis.

Pap: South African staple made from ground maize meal, closest cousin to grits, but the consistency of dough. Tastes like the water that was used to make but I have grown to like it.

The Drakensburg: Beautiful mountain range between the border of KZN and Lesoto.

Durban: South African major city on the east coast, known for its beautiful beaches and significant Indian population, which means INDIAN FOOD!!!

Pit Latrine: Toilette on top of a deep (sometimes shallow when it’s filled) hole. No flushing possible.
—-

Sizobonana until next time!

The Last Post

I started this blog to document my journey in Peace Corps South Africa. But, somewhere along the way, experiences became just part of everyday living. The need or desire to report the happenings faded as people, places and things of South Africa became more familiar than those of America. When I found my daily routine, the next day started to resemble the last and it was absolutely wonderful.

But, I do want to write up one last post to wrap everything up. Some of the things that happened towards the end of my service was everything I imagined Peace Corps to be. All the romanticized ideas I had about Peace Corps became true in the end and let me just say, it. was. awesome.

The Last Days in the Village

I think I had about a month in my village when it really hit me: I was about to leave everything I had built– a new role, a new identity, sense of purpose, my home, my community, my relationships– over the last two years with a long-winded airplane ride. It was a very emotionally charged time and, I think everyone at my school felt it, too. The kids were suddenly sensitive around me and strangely well-behaved?!

Even my old hand-washing station I built in the beginning of my service magically sprang to life. Over time, the kids had snapped off the wooden frame and crushed the bottles from the station, leaving it completely defunct for months. Some of the teachers and students must have gotten together and repaired the damage, installing new bottles with soapy water. I guess they wanted to show me that my efforts were not to go to waste.

The 2200 book library construction was finished in the nick of time. I even had some time to put the library in motion. How do you match the feeling you get after seeing children take home shiny colorful books for their first time? It was glorious to witness such joy in these kids.

The gifts trickled in. I received letters, glass cups, crackers, sweets, a single balloon, and other things from my kids. The teachers got together and got me a pair of traditional sandals made with tire rubber and a traditional springbok pouch. The gifts trickled out. I gave away almost all of my clothes and belongings that I brought from home and amassed throughout the years. I still choke up thinking back to the time when I gave my old high school Jansport backpack to one of my kids who had always used plastic bags to carry his books.

My Farewell Function

The day before I left my village, the whole school tried to surprise me with a farewell party. I knew they were planning something for me but to what degree was a definite surprise. I dressed up and went to school at the normal time, only to be turned away by the teachers who told me that they were going to come and “fetch” me when the party starts. I didn’t know what they meant by that so I walked back home and just waited.

Couple hours later, I hear non-stop honking. I go outside and I see that all of the teachers and my principal drove their cars in a caravan to come and escort me and my host family. Out in the distance, the school’s marching team was singing and beating drums. Our caravan met them on the road and the marching team led the caravan through the rest of the village back to school.

When we arrived, my host family, the Induna, several other guests and I were ushered into a decorated classroom for “snacks”. There were all of my new favorites: boiled and grilled goat meat and inner parts served with steamed bread called ujeqe. All the while, the marching team was still outside drumming and singing hymns.

After we were finished with our “snack”, it was time for the main event which was held at the church building across the school. The guests and I were asked to walk out two by two, me in the front of the line with my principal. When I walked out of the classroom, all the kids from the school had lined up to form a human path way to the church. It was like a combination of Soul Train and the very last scene of Titanic where all the ship patrons smile and bow as Rose walks up to Jack. The procession was very quiet and emotional.

During the main event, students, teachers, my host mom, the Induna, and my principal gave speeches. The student choir team sang lovely songs, the gum boots squad performed a cool step dance, and my 7th grade class performed a hilarious play. They asked me to say something at the end which I was not prepared for. I may have gotten couple words out before choking up.

After the main event, we went back to the school for more food that the teachers spent the whole day preparing. They also had a cake which they wanted me to cut ceremoniously. Wait, is this my wedding? Weddings in South Africa are a big deal; THIS was a big deal.

To top off the day, as the function neared the end, it started to down pour. The rain was short lived and left behind a double rainbow. A double rainbow on my last day at site– what is the meaning of all this?

The next morning, my host mom cooked for me food for the road. I said my good-byes and left my South African home with two suite cases, a whole chicken and my favorite steamed bread.

Being Back

The question everyone seem to ask, which also proved most difficult to answer was “So, how was it?” Peace Corps prepared us to think about a 2min elevator answer to this question during our Close of Service Conference but two minutes never seemed to suffice. So, how was it? It was two years of physical and emotional trials and tribulations. I learned about myself more than I would ever like to know. There were some bad days but the good days followed very closely and always outweighed the bad. The relationships and bonds I’ve formed were the most valuable gains I took from this whole experience. And in the Peace Corps, the rewards do not come until the very end so you must stick around to see it. I know it’s very generic but that’s the most I can say without going into details.

Being back has been a total reverse culture shock. Having a constant access to some of the amenities I lacked in Africa like a shower wasn’t difficult to adjust to, obviously. But, comfort became strangely uncomfortable. I won’t complain about internet speed.

Driving on the right side of the road was a little difficult at first. McDonald’s ain’t cheap no more. Artists I have never heard before like Sam Smith and Ariana Grande flooded the radio. All the kids on Modern Family have doubled in size. And literally, not a single cast member on SNL were familiar to me. Andy Sandberg’s gone? What about Bill Hader? 😦 As a die-hard SNL fan, that was the toughest to accept.

Some things stayed the same. In-n-Out remains to be the best burger chain, ever. Chipotle still makes crazy big burritos, but now you could get tofu? They finally finished the construction on the 405 freeway but LA traffic definitely have worsened.

Selection seem silly and a little daunting. One time, I accompanied a friend to the grocery store to buy food for a bbq party and I couldn’t help but feel agitated by the selection of mustard. There was an entire isle for mustard. Is the numerous types of mustard a benefit of a capitalist society or a sign of social collapse? You be the judge but I hope the President do something about this. But, I digress 🙂

Wrapping Up

Now, it’s been almost eight months since I left South Africa. I’ve had a good amount of time to decompress and reflect on my experiences. With a job on the way in a new city on a new coast, I finally feel I can close out this incredible chapter of my life. This transition period was an interesting process in itself. Though tough at times, I’m glad to have gone through it. If you have read this far, bless your soul, you poor thing. But in all seriousness, I thank you for your interest in my blog. And with this last bit, I sign out! Peace.

The very last thing I did before leaving my village was planting an avocado pit I carefully germinated at school. Couple months later, one of the teachers posted this picture on my fb wall. May it grow tall and bear delicious avocados for the children of Mashakeni!